The costs of digital overconsumption

A recent analysis revealed that there are nearly 5 billion social media users around the world.
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only.

Recently, while checking my phone storage, I realised I have around 20,000-odd photos and clips lurking in various corners. A large majority of them were WhatsApp forwards. I declutter occasionally, mostly when prompted to free up space. It got me thinking on the number of photos and clips I have consumed over a period of time.

The rise of social media and the ease of sharing digital images have been phenomenal in the past decade. A recent analysis revealed that there are nearly 5 billion social media users around the world. This growth is inextricably linked to the explosion in visual media, with the short video format being extremely popular. Instagram is one of the most sought-after platforms, with India leading in the number of users. For 2023, around 75 percent of internet users in India were on Instagram, many of them from Gen Z. The ease of content creation, availability of subscribers and followers, and the possibility of monetising and receiving ‘gifts’ are like going down a rabbit hole where there’s something for everyone. A picture is said to be worth a thousand words. This potential is being harvested by social media platforms.

Image used for representational purposes only.
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On the surface, it seems like a win-win situation. There is no apparent cost for onboarding or using social media. The platform gains by penetrative marketing and personalised ads. The user gets a soapbox to become an influencer, stay entertained and informed, or make money. Images fuel an increase in engagement. Photos and videos work exceedingly well as they transcend language barriers. Researchers are also working on AI tools which will generate synthetic images from text prompts. Visual perception is a primary function of the brain and an important ingredient of cognition. Visual processing is also faster than reading a sentence. Users are thus inextricably drawn into the attention economy, which harnesses the potential of distraction. Attention is the currency remitted for using social media. Human attention is an invaluable resource. Content on social media feeds attention and feeds off attention, and we end up doomscrolling. We are mostly oblivious to the opportunity cost involved.

There is, of course, the other side of the coin. The ease of generating and sharing photos and videos, drone photography, AR filters and apps that generate 3D images have enhanced user experience. A large number of people describe themselves as visual learners and benefit from advances in this technology. The precision of images could supplement the nuances of language. The use of videographic evidence in solving crimes is growing.

The human race has always realised the effectiveness of visual representation. Early writing used sequences of pictograms. Their popular use continues in road signs and danger symbols. The emergence of emojis and animated gifs, which are popular in social media, add a lightness and maybe layers of meaning to text messages.

However, the disturbing trend of morphed images and deepfakes is an emerging challenge. Digital images have enabled impersonations and identity theft. The irony is that many deepfakes are AI-generated and many a time only AI can identify them. As the saying goes, set a thief to catch a thief. Deepfakes are potential tools of misinformation and disinformation, which has been flagged at the World Economic Forum as a major global risk in the coming years. They have the power to be disruptive and foment trouble in conflict zones. Even social media algorithms can be compromised by deepfakes through ‘coordinated inauthentic behaviour’ and trigger disinformation. Also, the invasion of privacy and circulation of sleaze videos of unsuspecting victims is on the rise. Is it not possible for social media platforms to block such content? Concerted steps to tackle this menace are needed involving all stakeholders including regulators and tech companies.

Most users see the generation, sharing and storage of photos and videos as an in-built feature of the smart phone. There is no need to invest in cumbersome devices like in the past. Further, there are apps that can organise your album and curate your memories. The dynamics of cloud storage is not something a layman really comprehends. The cloud server is a network of computers capable of humungous computational power. It needs, among other things, electricity and air conditioning, and it generates a greater carbon footprint than the airline industry. The environmental cost of our digital engagement is never debated in the public domain. We are even not aware of the process involved when we delete media from smartphones. We are lulled into a false sense of ease.

Image used for representational purposes only.
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It is clear that there is an opportunity cost, an environmental cost and a social cost involved in compulsive digital engagement. We never ask ourselves whether anyone in the future is going to even glance at the hundreds of photos and selfies that we click. Content fatigue is bound to set in. To make informed choices and reduce mindless digital consumption is therefore essential at this point in time. There is value in digital minimalism. Certain measures have been imposed to keep mobile photography off bounds in some religious places, museums, forests and concert arenas. This is a welcome step. There is an irreverence in the approach of those who would forgo the synaesthesia of the moment to record a scene for bragging rights. There is a need for awareness regarding the effects of overconsumption of digital media. For it could well go the way of plastics—from being touted as the next big thing to being reviled.


Geetha Ravichandran

Former bureaucrat and author,most recently of The Spell of the Rain Tree

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The New Indian Express