Debate: The Virtual World Has Become More Real Than the Physical

Debate: The Virtual World Has Become More Real Than the Physical

Payal Arora, Marcus du Sautoy, Tarun Khanna, Renata Lok-Dessallien, Pragya Sharma and Meredith Broussard moderated by Sanjoy K. Roy

The 14th Jaipur Literature Festival drew to a close with its traditional debate, which was far from traditional. It did take place at Diggi Palace but on the digitally recreated Front Lawn. The Virtual World Has Become More Real Than The Physical, proved a controversial topic in many ways.

Festival Producer and Moderator, Sanjoy K. Roy, revealed in his introduction that no one on the panel wanted to argue “For” this proposition. Every panellist was “Against” the motion. So, the session morphed into a fascinating think tank filled with agile minds instead.

Despite wide-ranging backgrounds in science, academia, anthropology, Artificial Intelligence, diplomacy, the corporate world and the arts, the panellists did converge. They foretold a bleak future unless we keep seeking and finding ways to collaborate coupled with our human ability for compassion, empathy and ethics, to be reflected in the virtual world we co-create.

Renata Lok-Dessallien has worked for the United Nations for 35 years throughout Africa and Asia. She warned that “We are at the cusp or beginning of a social emergency, not so far from the climate change emergency in proportions.” Humans are now spending an average of 40% of their time online, which is around a hundred days per year and is causing all sorts of problems, from anxiety, brain fog and sleeplessness, to more serious issues like depression and self-harm. Many have become aware that behind the scenes, of social media in particular, lies what she calls “the attention economy”. Also labelled “brain hacking,” what is terrifying is that “sometimes we are not aware of, or conscious of it. We are eroding our own independence, our sovereign agency.”

Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, author and entrepreneur Tarun Khanna has been a Professor at Harvard for 25 years. Having recently worked on a project for African entrepreneurs, the academic group enlisted “very positive and real action” in 34 out of the 54 African countries. However, the six-week course took somewhere between six and nine months to get off the ground because the real world “wouldn’t allow the virtual to get into the swing of things.” Having worked mostly with the US, India and China, “I guess I got seduced into thinking that we are now in a completely new technology-enabled era, but it occurs to me that for maybe 6.5 billion of the 8 billion people in the world, I don’t think the virtual is real at all.”

Digital anthropologist and author Payal Arora shone a light on this issue too. “The problem is that while we are very much in agreement, we continue to design without including what I call ‘the marginalised majority,’ which is the billions of people who are not at the centre. We don’t humanise a lot of the low income, marginalised…entire groups of people, which are the norm. So we are the exceptions to the rule.” When looking to the future, she called hers, “a leap of faith that I believe there’s going to be a positive end, because I can’t afford to be a pessimist.”

“The idea that the virtual world would be better than the real world is part of an idea that I call techno-chauvinism. It’s a kind of bias that says that technology is superior,” stated Meredith Broussard, Associate Professor at New York University and respected author. “In fact, technology is a blunt instrument, and there are all kinds of inequalities embedded in the technologies that we use.” She went on to describe a chilling problem with a current system, “It is racist [as] people with darker skin don’t get recognised by the exam proctoring system, or they get flagged more for cheating.” Such ethical problems are not uncommon in the virtual world, where “hierarchies of privilege are built-in and what they’re doing is, they’re duplicating the world as it is right now. We should develop technologies that lead us to a more ethical, more just, more equitable world.”

“At the moment, you’re all experiencing us thanks to us being converted into numbers and information, which is a kind of new form of energy,” says Marcus du Sautoy, an author, Professor of Science and Professor of Maths at Oxford. “I think we tend to cast this as a debate too much about a certain competition between the virtual and the real….and actually in some ways my background is “Hal” from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hollywood is very responsible for this conflict between the two. My feeling is that we need to change that debate and really talk about this as a collaboration.”

Pragya Sharma works for Amazon India and spent 15 years with Unilever. “Life has to go on, and businesses have to go on…especially the small to medium businesses, which are really the growth engine of the Indian economy.” Pragya has been humbled and impressed by how such firms “have adopted the technology and shed the mindsets.” Despite working for one of the top 5 companies that collectively make up $4 trillion, which is more than the Indian economy. She cautioned that “We as humans don’t value certain freedoms and privileges available to us, until such time as that they are taken away.”

These sobering words were echoed again and again, particularly in the realm of social media. “I think that the social media platforms have just been shirking the responsibility for years, and it’s time to step up,” Meredith stated that they “have profited enormously from the proliferation of misinformation, and they have done this without shame.” Sanjoy pointed out that online hatred is “a tsunami that is swamping people across social media.”

Payal noted that amongst the many challenges, “you have the social cultural, where we’ve seen evidence of high rates of domestic violence and enormous amounts of care work has fallen on the shoulders of women over that of men.” She declared that things cannot be seen in universal terms, “it’s obviously contextual, and it’s geo-political.”

Early on in the pandemic, Tarun explained how educators were sent a “strange circular that came out from the [Indian] government, saying that basically, no one could converse cross-border without getting permission.” This caused an outrage, and it was eventually torn down. With higher education, it’s “very tough to coax the rest of the establishment along; we’re making progress but very, very slowly.” However, he points to some fantastic studies taking place in India, Indonesia and Brazil and that “a fluorescence of experiments is something that I think we should celebrate and encourage.”

Renata is very aware that the majority of humans don’t have online access but that “those who do have access can be better educated than ever before in our history, and could be more responsible citizens.” Always with the light, comes the dark. “At the same time, the opposite is true….because of the fake news and disinformation that’s out there, because of the filter bubbles that put us into groups, we are fed information that the algorithm thinks will make us feel comfortable and happy. Basically, it’s eroding the common ground that we used to share.”

Renata shared a humbling quote by a famous American biologist, E.O. Wilson, “The problem with humanity is that we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology.” She warned that that is where “we are sitting right now, in the confluence of these contradictory aspects of our existence.” After referencing Vedanta philosophy (“Maybe none of this is real?”), she recounted when Microsoft created a chatbot in 2016 to interact casually with humans online. They put it on Twitter and left the software to its own devices. “It was totally unbiased in the beginning. Its only objective was to learn, but after 24 hours, they had created a fascist bigot and had to take it offline….So with all this fabulous potential, it all depends on what we put into it.”

Marcus summed up the Festival and this discussion brilliantly, “I think it’s one of the joys of the Jaipur Literature Festival that you bring people from so many different disciplines together to share ideas, and this really is the way forward.”