When was the last time you logged into Instagram for a 10-minute break from work and ended up spending a full hour watching cat videos?
Does your email inbox make you feel overwhelmed on a daily basis? Do you have the time to genuinely engage with every WhatsApp conversation?
In the hyper-interactive digital world of today, these are all-too-relatable questions. But how can these issues be contextualised, understood and eventually solved so that our digital lives feel safer, productive and meaningful?
In their new book The Art of Bitfulness, Nandan Nilekani and Tanuj Bhojwani take up the challenge to decode our toxic relationship with technology and chart a way towards a healthier digital existence.
My Kolkata caught up with Nilekani – the non-executive chairman of Infosys – and Bhojwani – a fellow with the software think tank iSPIRIT – to get to grips with the major concerns with the contemporary digital landscape, what users can do to help themselves and how collective action can lead to a more hopeful future.
Edited excerpts from the Zoom conversation follow.
My Kolkata: Let’s start with the term “bitfulness”. Did you two coin it? Could you explain what it means?
Nandan Nilekani (NN): Yes, it’s a word we coined. We took off from mindfulness, where you’re mindful about what you do. Bitfulness is mindfulness in the digital world. “Bit” is also present in computer terminology and refers to a small unit of information. The idea is that with a little bit of bitfulness, you can do well in your digital lives.
Tanuj Bhojwani (TB): In terms of what it means, it’s largely about being effortlessly mindful about technology. It’s certainly not about us asking the readers to live without technology or delete all social media. We don’t think that fits into the world we live in right now. But how do you fit digital platforms into your lifestyle rather than completely doing away with them? That’s what bitfulness tries to explain.
Throughout history, humans have had to contend with distractions that affect their professional and personal lives. But what makes our digital devices and the distractions they bring different, even dangerous?
NN: For the first time, we’re in a world where we have distractions at our fingertips for 24 hours a day. The very ease of use allows you to go all over the place. As Tanuj said, the solution we propose isn’t to turn off your machine and go and live in a forest. But how do you define certain guardrails, certain practices where you have systematically defined ways of carving out space for different activities? That’s the main question digital distractions pose for me.
TB: A few years ago, there was this book called Hooked (by Nir Eyal), which reveals the secrets of how to get your customers addicted to your products. This has now become an acceptable language or mode of thinking in tech. What makes digital distractions insidious is that people are looking at psychology research, among other things, with the intention of making users give up whatever else they’re doing and use more of an app.
A lot of people regard the time they spend doomscrolling as a personal failing. But you think the burden of responsibility lies elsewhere. Why so?
NN: Today’s technology is deliberately designed to keep you engaged. To blame doomscrolling on the user’s will power (or the lack of it) isn’t the right thing to do. For instance, in the physical world, I have a certain mindset when I enter a bar. It’s about people, enjoyment, and having a drink. It’s about socialising. But when I enter a library, it’s a completely different mindset, where it’s about sitting down, reading, thinking. So the physical world gives you cues about where you are and what you can do. There are no such cues in the digital space.
TB: Why is it not the user’s fault? Look, you can try guilt, shame or fear, maybe those can motivate you to make a change in the short term, but for the change to sustain, the understanding of the problem has to be more wholesome. Looking at yourself with kindness, looking at the problem with kindness is what’s required, instead of putting everything on the user and labelling doomscrolling as a “you” problem, for that doesn’t take the necessary context into account.
In your book, you recommend writing things down as a way to actualise bitfulness. How can writing help in solving our toxic relationship with technology?
TB: Writing is a mechanism to redirect your attention and your thoughts. When you’re worried or anxious, even bored, that’s when you’re most likely to check your phone or look for a distraction. This is where writing can come in as a way to understand your mind. The thing is, digital devices reduce the distance between thought and action, but adding a little bit of friction through writing or even thinking about writing, might help you make better decisions and choices.
NN: I practise a lot of writing and I have a book in which I write down all my thoughts. I often go back to that book because it provides me with a useful reference frame for my thoughts. Writing is how I keep my thoughts organised.
Nandan Nilekani is the non-executive chairman of InfosysTT Archives
Both of you recommend that your readers have split personalities on their devices, which is to say that you suggest using separate accounts for professional networking and personal relationships on laptops and mobile phones. How can this be advantageous?
NN: My first digital device was a laptop and till date my main mode of communication remains email. In the last few years, I have started using a smartphone and an iPad. Whatever focused work I have to do is done on the laptop. When I have to curate — read or watch something on Netflix — I do that on my iPad. And finally, I use my phone just to talk, through text or call. I don’t use social media, except for Twitter, which I use to broadcast messages.
TB: I think the principle here is that the amount of information in your environment directs your attention. If your phone is always dinging, you’re more likely to get distracted. Now you ask yourself whether you can create an environment where the only information you need is about the task at hand. If you create such an environment, you’re much more likely to do focused work. Nandan does it through three different devices, which is simple yet effective. But another way to do this is to create a different user account on the same device. When you do that, it’s as good as buying a new laptop or a new phone. Then it’s all about intelligent configuration to make sure that you create a peaceful environment.
According to Bhojwani, more than oversharing on social media platforms, the bigger problem is the lack of control users have over their own dataTT Archives
Let’s move to the aspect of privacy and its equation with technology. The Israeli historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari has argued that we, as human beings, are becoming hackable, which is to say that digital devices are getting to know us better than we know ourselves. A lot of this is happening through oversharing, especially on social media. How do you see oversharing in the context of technology and are we inadvertently sabotaging our own selves? What can we do to prevent this?
NN: If you use one ID everywhere, then it’s very easy for all your digital trails to be brought together. But if you create multiple IDs for multiple platforms or activities — one for your close friends, one for your business, one as a burner ID for your junk mail — that helps you in getting more privacy. Because in that case, not all of your data can be put together to create a single profile.
TB: Nandan and I work on something called the India Stack, where we think that the whole principle should be different, which is that all data should belong to the user. Users should be able to determine what happens to their data. At the same time, privacy isn’t an on or off switch such that all your data can be seen or none at all. Real privacy is granular, in the sense of who can see what. That’s the choice that should rest with the users. So the real problem isn’t oversharing, but the fact that ownership and control over data isn’t with the users.
Nilekani cites India’s UPI as a good example of interoperability being used for public goodTT Archives
In terms of those who control data, the role of Big Tech seems to be growing bigger in spite of all the regulatory attempts to check it. Is regulation the best way to combat the outsized influence technology has on our lives? Or do we need a form of counter technology to create the changes we need?
NN: The way technology is structured today lends itself to walled gardens and winner-takes-all models. Therefore, we talk about two alternatives in our book. The first is about how the whole crypto world is promising complete decentralisation. We’re not entirely convinced about that because even in the crypto world, there will be new gatekeepers who’ll emerge. But in some situations, a crypto approach can make sense.
The other alternative is creating digital infrastructure that allows you to create interoperable, portable systems where users can switch from provider to provider. That’s how you encourage competition and innovation without facilitating a winner-takes-all scenario. A good example of that is India’s UPI payments system. The challenge with regulation is that technology has progressed so fast that regulation hasn’t kept pace with it.
In India, what we’re trying to do is to bring in interoperability so that innovation can continue. The latest instance of that is the Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC), which promotes open networks for all aspects of exchange of goods and services over digital networks.
TB: The term that we’re looking at is adversarial interoperability. Look at the history of large technology companies like AT&T, which used to have its own network and its own phones, and could create a vertical monopoly. However, when people started to make phones that were compatible with AT&T networks but weren’t made by AT&T, we not only saw the monopoly and outsized control go away, but we also witnessed innovation and competition flourishing. Phones started becoming funkier with more interesting features.
So, interoperability is, to an extent, about counter technology, but it’s not like there’s a war between government and private companies. Rather, the essential idea is more competition makes things better for everybody.
Bhojwani is not a fan of the double tap feature on Instagram chatsShutterstock
Earlier on, both of you touched upon your relationship with technology. But has writing this book changed the way you engage with your devices?
NN: As I said earlier, I only use Twitter, that too for broadcasting. I don’t get into fights with anyone! But what I realised is that the younger generation, those who grew up with social media, can’t really say that I won’t use Instagram or other such platforms. I also realised the value of things I had done in the past, such as having a proper folder system to sort my emails. I have folders going back over two decades, which can fish out anything from any meeting that happened years back.
TB: While writing this book, I learnt a lot about how communities across the Internet are really concerned about how to take notes and remember things in the midst of an information overload. Another interesting thing I can recall is how somebody was telling me that conversations never really end on social media. You send something and the other person replies with a “LOL” or an emoji, you react to it, and it keeps going on. I also discovered the double tap feature on Instagram where you heart react to someone’s message. I mean, that’s quite insidious, it’s forcing you to pay too much attention to rather pointless aspects of communication.
The next question probably applies more to Tanuj. What is your favourite social media platform or digital app to use?
TB: It’s Twitter, because of the simple reason that it’s the place where I can learn the most without anybody’s permission.
NN: I don’t like any media where algorithms feed me information, that’s like a slippery slope. I prefer linear platforms.
Finally, to end with an optimistic outlook in the midst of our digital dystopia, give us one reason to be hopeful about technology…
NN: Primarily, we think that the digital challenge is something people can overcome, not by will power but through smart use of systems. We can also be hopeful once we realise that we need both individual and collective solutions. Look at the pandemic, the individual solution is wearing a mask while the collective solution is vaccination. Even in the digital world, individual solutions need to be there to function in a more efficient manner, but we also need larger solutions like interoperability.
TB: Digital infrastructure is easier to change than actual, physical infrastructure. Rewriting code is much easier than revamping a city that’s structured to increase inequality. Changing energy dependency from petroleum to solar is hard, but going from one app to another is easier. So even though we are where we are, there’s nothing inevitable about losing hope. The key is to replace the winner-takes-all model with a model for public good. Can we do it really quickly? If we really want to, we can, maybe even in a couple of years. That’s what makes us hopeful.