What is it that keeps us driven every day? What makes people committed to working 10 hours a day, seven days a week? Why do parents push their children to go to school? Why is everyone pacing towards the next big thing?
Because they want to create a name for themselves. The world is built around creating and valuing a person’s social identity. Money, power, status – all help us shape our identity. And so, it’s important to us. It matters what others think of us. It matters what image we create about ourselves. It matters that we are seen in the way we want to be seen.
Asking some of those questions to myself – why do I wake up at 5 am on a Sunday? Why do I not eat eggs when they are casually consumed in my family? Why did I learn Esperanto when it is hardly spoken around the world? Why did I spend over 300 hours to scan my notes to share with friends? Why did I leave my company to do a Master’s in Design and Technology when it’s unrelated to my previous work?
Because I like to be unique. I want to be the only one who does that. When I look up my name on Google, I want to be the only Akshansh who can do all that. It’s a part of my identity, and that’s important to me.
Over the past decade, technology has been driving us towards automation. Machines are simplifying our lives by working for us. One of the ways they give us that convenience is by mapping our personality. What do we like to eat? Where do we like to go? When are we sad? When do we feel loved? Who do we interact with? Who are we?
The systems are creating our digital identity to provide us that convenience. Since we crave for that lifestyle, we feed our personal information to these data-hungry systems. The technology companies are training machines to understand humans. But how do I control what that machine learns about me? Can I limit what personal data gets shared? Am I free to customize my digital profile? Who is controlling all this? Quoting Shoshana Zuboff from her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, “Who knows? Who Decides? Who Decides Who Decides?”
The idea of information sharing, constant surveillance, data collection, ad tracking, free content is all so common now that we don’t feel odd about the fact that we are no longer in control of our identity. The one thing that was so important to us – our identity – has now been left in the hands of someone to control. I’m not okay with letting a machine decide who I am, what I like, or dislike. I want to control how I am seen online.
My privacy is mine to control. Privacy – one word but means differently to different people.
I am doing a thesis project on privacy to spread awareness on the importance of our digital identity, and what we can do as users of the internet to control how we are pictured in this interconnected world.
I am selecting Generation Z (children in the age group 18-24 who have used the internet since a young age and are comfortable with technology and social media) as my target segment for this project because they are early adopters of technology and hence susceptible to its data collection practice. I believe that GenZ can be educated about the added responsibility of using the internet – being prudent about sharing their personal data. The spread of any technology depends primarily on its adoption, and if GenZ regulate their internet usage, the industry will update its practices.
Consider the purpose of a mobile phone, for instance. It started out as a communication device, extended to be an all-purpose tool, and is now being marketed as a portable camera with options to share clips seamlessly. If you think about it – better devices today mean better cameras, and better cameras mean better surveillance. It’s a market form that is evolving, and as active users of technology and passive readers of legal jargon, we are unknowingly accepting it.
A recent example is the FaceApp, an app which took an image of your face and used AI to create an older version of yourself. It quickly became a trend on social media. Immediately after, privacy advocates realized that the app was developed by the Russians who were taking users’ personal data. That led to several awareness campaigns to prevent users from sharing their data on the app.
The key here is that trends get adopted unknowingly. We do what our friends are doing, and then suddenly we have lost control of our lives. People should be conscious so that they avoid such mistakes.
My experience at Parsons and my projects in the previous semesters have a lot to do with my advocacy around privacy. While I was in India, I had little interest to learn about what was happening around the world. I wanted to focus my attention on work and productivity. A side-effect of that behavior was that I didn’t read the news.
There was a drastic change in my outlook of the world as I started attending lectures at Parsons. An art school in the United States had a lot of considerations about culture and our role as designers. That directed me to a path of questioning the space around me, finding problems, and looking for solutions.
As I started reading and discussing social issues and global ‘unsolvable’ problems, I had an adrenaline rush of emotions for the first time – why had I been ignoring all these concerns around me?
I was charged and motivated to act and contribute to solving them. Particularly, texts around the history of advertisement, influence, bias, social pressure, and technology made me conscious of my actions. Films and television shows added fuel to the fire by presenting dystopian outlooks of the future following our actions of the present.
Questioning my friends and receiving neutral responses on the topic of privacy made me realize that people only care about the issues which have a direct correlation with their lives. There is an information overload, and people can only care about so much. I also realized that people take data sharing for granted.
That added to my commitment to make the outlook of this issue concerning enough for people to care about. There is (or at least will be) a loss of personality, and it can be avoided.
Since it is a serious topic, I want to use a different form for the project. To achieve that, I aim to select from immersive experiences, educational games, or interactive installation media to spread active awareness.
I want to end with this thought:
Questioning the value of privacy is like asking a reason for the importance of freedom.