Aditi Bhatnagar

@summer.of.90s

How free are we to “choose” in digital world?

Your choices define your world.

Time and again I’m stuck by this phrase “We are just living probabilities”. What we are today is due to a set of choices we made in our past, and that feels very relatable to me. If instead of ‘A’ I would have chosen ‘B’, I might have been a totally different person today. The choices you made while picking up your college, choosing your field of interest, choosing companies to work with, selecting your best friends, selecting the person to date, selecting the city you live in, the food you eat, movies you would watch, books you’d read, skills you would learn, all of them left an impact on you and shaped you as a person.

The interesting thing with the real human life is that our choices are our own. At least I’d like to believe so. I am aware there is a parallel theory, which talks how everything you do is pre-decided, not truly in your hands and that free will is an illusion.

But in either case, one thing which is true is the diverse set of options. We have options and not all of them are truly Boolean, a lot of them are in grey.

A simple example would be, you like a person: yes or no? This is not a Boolean question. There is not essentially, pure liking or pure hating a person, it has a lot of different aspects to it, maybe you love the person, may be you hate the person, you admire the person, you would want to like the person or the existence of that person just doesn’t matter, etc. We are so full of complex feelings, emotions and perspectives. They are not that Boolean.

Well if you are in neural nets, you may say assign weights to the features that make you like/dislike the person and the absence/presence of every single feature would decide the final result, so it’s kind of Boolean at the lowest level, but let’s not go that deep. We are talking about things that we as humans feel, understand and connect to.

The number of choices we can make is indefinite and best part is you can define your own.

No doubt there is always a given, based on what society/family/institution you are part of, but you have a choice to change that as well and a choice to not pick up from the given but seek something totally different. This is how our real lives feel like. If not truly free, it definitely successfully gives us the illusion that it is.

Having accomplished that fact, let’s figure out what happens when we try to shift into digital world.

How do our lives get impacted in the digital world?

We are trying to map our lives in digital spheres so desperately, we need everything online, from food to friends, to jobs, to date, to music, to movies. All of these vital components of our life are now provided to us via digital medias and hence it becomes a question of interest as to how our choices get reflected on the digital medias.

In digital medias, choices are presented as menu bars, where the developer (of any tech company) decides what all is to be put. And since it’s a capitalist, attention economy, we cannot really trust them with providing us unbiased choices, and that affects our experience with the digital world. Technology provides us with a “limited” set of options and at times prompts us to take certain actions. Let me explain on this using two design examples on Instagram.

View post for all the screens.

You can follow someone or unfollow them, mute the posts or both the stories and the posts, you can add to your story or edit close friends list or block a user, unsend a message or mark as unread etc. It is a proper architecture and we can operate only within that. Referring back to the example we started off with, either you can like a person that equivalent to a “follow” or not. They added features like close friends and mute stories etc. to reflect the real life range of relations but still the set of options you can add to a platform are just so limited, by design. Needless to say this architecture has also made us susceptible to lot of content we could have easily ignored and moved on with in real lives.

A really intriguing feature is “Stories”. The people you follow can make you see whatever they want at any time and you can do vice versa. This is an altogether different kind of communication. Previously, we did keep in touch with fellow humans but that was decided by us, what date and time of the day we want to do that, it was never this instantaneous and out of our control. Also, we used to decide on the topics we would want to communicate on and the conversation was decided by the two involved.

Conversation was decided by the two involved in the dialogue.

“Stories” changed it to one sided, where each person shows what s/he wants to, irrespective of what others want to see. We are not provided with enough choices in this case. It’s difficult to conclude if it’s right or wrong but it’s important to acknowledge that it’s a very different kind of communication that has never existed in years, since humans had their first dialogue.

Another example I would like to bring in notice is this:

I was getting frequent notifications that were distracting me from the task at hand so I decided to mute them. I really wanted them to be muted forever, my thought process being that let me decide when to open the app. I will open it once a day, address all the notifications and then leave it rather than every push notification dragging me back to open the app and spend more time there. But to my surprise, when I go to Settings, this is what I see.

I had no choice to mute it forever.

The max I was allowed was for 8 hours. The reasons are quite simple and the bias towards profit for the company is clearly visible. One can say that you always have the option to uninstall the app or put your phone to silent, but we all know how feasible that is. The core essence being you should be provided with an option at the least, an option within the architecture of whatever application you are using.

So through and through, while your usage of the app, you are dictated a set of options from which you have to pick. That decides and controls your digital life.

This is humorously serious, because as I look at it I realize that I am exposed to unwanted crap content because I am not given the “choice” to avoid it, I am having friend list with unrealistic number of people on the list because I was not provided with a choice to regulate the size of it anywhere, I can react to most posts in only one of these five forms

Though most of the posts I see are crap and my reaction to them is mostly a facepalm, I don’t have the choice for that emoticon in this tray.

Hence, whether or not free choice is an illusion in real life, one thing that we are certainly sure of is that our digital lives are definitely devoid of that. The only choices that we are allowed to make on digital platforms are the ones from a thoughtfully placed and biased set of options well curated by the developers in the favor of the companies they serve.
This post is authored under the concept of Summer of 90s.
Summer of 90s is an initiative to consciously analyze our usage of tech and spread awareness about the issues it brings along like digital privacy, security, tech addictions and design ethics.
You’re welcome to join us in the cause!
Follow us on medium, on Facebook or @summer.of.90s on Instagram because we need to spread the word.

More by Aditi Bhatnagar

Topics of interest

More Related Stories