Donald Trump, cellphones and the age of bubbles

There is a link, a correlation between the rapid rise of the strong leader and the cellphone


The unique feature of the rise of the strong leader like Donald Trump is a phenomenon particularly evident in democracies populated by cellphones. Photo: AFP
The unique feature of the rise of the strong leader like Donald Trump is a phenomenon particularly evident in democracies populated by cellphones. Photo: AFP

President Donald Trump.

So, you believe the world has changed?

Eli Pariser believes the world changed on 4 December 2009. That was the day Google put out a small announcement on its corporate blog. It read: “Personalised search for everyone”. Search would no longer be the same for everyone, wrote Pariser in his 2012 book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding. An algorithm would now use 55 signals from you—signals you may not know you were sending, such as your searches, their frequency, your computer’s location—and customize what you find, reinforcing your deepest feelings and excluding, perhaps permanently, things you don’t care about (even if you should). It was no coincidence that personalised search began the year after the launch of the tool that heralded the personalisation of internet technology: the Apple iPhone 3G, which introduced us to apps and the touchscreen.

If there were to be a motto for the internet age, it could be: You are what you search for or what you find or who finds you.

It’s easier than ever before for those who you may never have heard of to reach you within weeks, days, seconds and help shape or reshape yourself within what Pariser, founder of Avaaz.org, one of the world’s largest galvanizers of social-media opinion, says is the filter bubble. These are the amorphous thought bubbles that wrap around us, as we tap on our cellphones and stare at our screens.

“Your filter bubble is the personal universe of information that you live in online— unique and constructed just for you by the array of personalized filters that now power the web,” says Pariser in this interview.(https://www.brainpickings.org/2011/05/12/the-filter-bubble/)

“Facebook contributes things to read and friends’ status updates, Google personally tailors your search queries, and Yahoo News and Google News tailor your news. It’s a comfortable place, the filter bubble — by definition, it’s populated by the things that most compel you to click. But it’s also a real problem: the set of things we’re likely to click on (sex, gossip, things that are highly personally relevant) isn’t the same as the set of things we need to know.”

Also read: Donald Trump rewrote political playbook in route to becoming US president

You care about things in your bubble, things that come at you from your customised social-media feeds: garbage dumped near your house, the flyover being built over your favourite part of the city, the prime minister you idolise, the soldier who died, even the dog being beaten near your house. You may not care as much about what’s outside your bubble, things you may hear of only in passing: police atrocities in Bastar, schools being burnt in Kashmir, millions of children stuck in sweatshops instead of schools. The tyranny of physical distance is irrelevant, what matters is the ping on your phone. You can hide in your bubble, safe behind your screen and no one will know—as the pundits most certainly did not as Trump swept to power.

Americans may think there has been no one like Trump, but the 15 years of this century, globally, has clearly been witness to the rise of the strong, previously unknown leader who uses hyperbole, taps into the deepest economic and social fears of majority populations—no matter what the reality is—and knows of the power of the cellphone. As we stream towards them, imbibing their thoughts and changing our opinions, we become part of their bubbles.

The unique feature of the rise of the strong leader, the demagogue, whatever you may call him—they are all male—is a phenomenon particularly evident in democracies populated by cellphones: We have watched the rise in this century of Vladimir Putin (Russia), Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey), Rodrigo Duterte (the Phillipines), Victor Orban (Hungary), Narendra Modi (India), the rise across Europe of what was once the fringe, far Right, and of Trump. I would not go so far as to say there is causation, but there is a link, a correlation between the rapid rise of the strong leader and the cellphone.

Also read: Lesson from US elections: Humanity needs to catch up to technology

Mobile data traffic worldwide rose 4,000 times in the decade to 2015, according to a working paper from Cisco, a networking company. (http://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/solutions/collateral/service-provider/visual-networking-index-vni/mobile-white-paper-c11-520862.html)

If that sounds like a lot, it rose almost 400 million times since 2000. In 2014, for the first time in history, Internet use on the cellphone exceeded the personal computer. This is significant because the PC—not always on and not in our hands—was the main source to access the Internet; today, it is just one of many devices. The cellphone is the leading gateway to the Internet for more than half of all users.

In his book, Pariser quotes Marshall McLuhan, the father of modern media theory: “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” We have been shaped by nothing else as clearly as we have been by our cellphones. Over the next four years, cellphone data traffic is projected to grow five times, or a compounded annual growth rate of 53% (https://www.statista.com/statistics/271405/global-mobile-data-traffic-forecast/).

Expect our bubbles to grow larger, stronger and produce more leaders like Trump.

Samar Halarnkar is editor of Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism, non-profit organization.

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