Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Truth, Trust and Technology

We live in a post truth-world where people believe in Facebook and WhatsApp forwards more than their own logic. With the American elections and the Indian public discourse riddled with fake news in last few months, I was wondering if such a thing actually existed. 
My life’s choices expose me to very little un-credible sources of information.
I read news using a set of tools (RSS feeds) that hand picks news for only a specific set of topics that interest me and then creates a custom newspaper for me every morning (and evening, if I wish!). I use Facebook to tell people that I am alive and kicking - not to read opinion shaping news!

But in the course of public interactions some very bizarre things happened over last few weeks:

1. I am a minimalist and hence don’t like owning a car - since I can get a car on demand. Uber and Ola have been my wheels since they arrived. But, increasingly a strange problem has been emerging. Both these providers use google maps as the foundation of their navigation. And if you live in the by lanes of Delhi - and have used Google Maps - you would relate to my problems. Google Maps loves the 100ft + roads. When I ask it to navigate from South Ex 2 to Green Park, it will by default put me on Ring Road!
Hey wait, I know a shortcut, uncontested, uncluttered and that cuts the travel time and distance by half.
But, is my advice of any use to the Uber driver. No! They would retort - Let us use Google Maps, it knows BETTER! A discussion on how google maps consumes our time, battery and data to tell us what to do - only leads to an argument. 
Round I : Trust on Humans loses!

2. I was recently tele-introduced to someone by a family member. 
We were to discuss life, technology, ethics, plans, career, etc. But a spoiler arrived. 
This time it was not a Google Product. It was a software from Scandinavia, known as Truecaller. This is a rather nifty app, useful in my opinion. But most people don’t really seem to understand how it works. When I would call, my name would show up as Apollo Jha! I have neither changed my religion, nor my name. And I haven’t been to moon on a NASA mission, yet! But the confusion this has created is incredible. Am I Apollo, or am I Prashant. Or, Am I someone else ? I looked under the hood of this app and realised that it does a few things without most of the people knowing. It steals all your contacts in the phone book and then uses that crowd-sourced information to alert someone who has the app, but not your name in their contact book.
Funny still, if my friends call me Teddy Bear, and they save my name as Teddy Bear, I will now show up as Teddy Bear calling, when I call a new number. This is ridiculous.
 A better version should be where, Truecaller should seek consent from people if they want to let go of their entire contact book to an unknown server and it should be an opt-in service. If I want my name to be listed in a directory, I should join, if not it is best marked as Spam/Not-spam! Do we really want to know the name of the spammers? I don’t.
This trouble doesn’t seem to have ended. Hours and hours of conversation has lost over a trivial bug. 
Round II: Trust on IT tools trumps.

3. I recently lost a bag at Geneva airport. Last flight in Geneva - and the last train to city was 40 minutes away. As the Q from the luggage belt started to dwindle, I was worried. I was the first one to arrive there. But my bag was not in sight! I waited, and then finally the information board said that the luggage to come next was from a different flight. Disgusted, I headed to the baggage office, to see where my bag was. The executive after a check with my boarding pass told me - your bag has arrived. It is on the belt. I told her my story - I was there since the beginning of time, but to no avail. She said her system says the bag has arrived. She nearly scolded me for being careless as to have missed by bag on the belt and that it would go into quarantine for security reasons. Then she checked if my bag was in quarantine - No, said her system! She looked at my handbag and asked if this was the bag I was looking for? I almost smiled in disgust! What happened to my bag next is immaterial. The trust in a computer screen is more than in a living person - in flesh and blood! 
Round III: Tech trumps over Human Information System.

I usually don’t rumble on my blog, but these three incidents in last few months make me think that if we continue to let search engines or apps shape our beliefs and perception of reality, we would be doing it at the risk of losing who we are - imperfect human beings.

I would rather like to be lost in a city than mechanically commute from point A to B.

While lost, I might discover a Partner, a Saathi, a new Corner or even Myself!