How Nandan Nilekani learnt to use tech mindfully

#Beacon2022 Festival Special: Nandan Nilekani and Tanuj Bhojwani talk about digital hygiene, making tech choices, holding your own in the attention economy, enabling serendipity, cryptocurrency and more

Founding Fuel

In this Twitter Spaces conversation, Nandan Nilekani and Tanuj Bhojwani talk about some central ideas in their book, The Art of Bitfulness.

The conversation, held in early February, was a Beacon Festival Special brought to you by BITSoM and Founding Fuel.

“This book is not anti-tech, it is pro you so you use technology better,” says Nilekani. 

If one is to use tech mindfully, it’s important to have digital hygiene. Nilekani says, “I am a great believer in technology and its transformation potential…but I observed, especially in the pandemic, that people were more and more dependent on their devices for everything and were spending an inordinate amount of time on it. I felt it’s important to use technology in a way that’s effective for ourselves and not let it rule over you.”

Nandan Nilekani is the co-founder and chairman of Infosys Technologies. He was founding chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), a Cabinet minister rank, from 2009–2014. Most recently, Nilekani has co-founded and is chairman of EkStep, a not-for-profit effort to create a learner centric, technology-based platform to improve basic literacy and numeracy for millions of children.

Tanuj Bhojwani is a storyteller who codes. He holds a chemical engineering degree from IIT Bombay. He also attended Ashoka University and studied liberal arts at the Young India Fellowship. His training in the sciences and humanities allows him to craft narratives about technology that are accessible without sacrificing technical depth.

Key Takeaways

1. Working well with someone much older or younger  

Nilekani: I started a walk in the park and invited others to join. Tanuj lives close by and I called him over. As we started chatting, we realised though we had a different way of dealing with technology, at an abstract level our approach was identical. We shared notes and extracted the conceptual frame. And we found that in the details we may be different but conceptually we are the same.

Bhojwani: It was surprising for us that there is so much similarity despite very different contexts and different starting points of technology. Nandan started using a smartphone after I started using a smartphone. 

Nilekani: In the book we talk about three modes—Create, Communicate and Curate. I do this through physical devices. Create—I always do that on my laptop in the same place in my office with the right lighting. I do all my curation—reading—on my iPad. And communication I do on my phone—calls and SMSes. So I use three different devices. The context is set when I pick up that device. People like Tanuj use one device for all.

2. The internet business’s Original Sin: Attention is the currency that powers the internet economy

Nilekani: [The internet was a product of the US government.] But when Netscape came out, the internet revolution began and was primarily driven by commercial organisations that had to figure out a way of making money from the internet. At that time there was no payment system, so the only way to make money was through advertising and that meant engaging people—the longer people spend using your product, the more attention you’ve got and therefore you could show them more ads. Therefore a lot of the technology is how to keep people engaged. The business model itself was the original sin.

Bhojwani: If you try to stand on either side of this debate and say our technology is super powerful, you are ineffective; or you say Facebook/Meta/Google are evil—we genuinely believe both of these are insufficient for what’s happening. Our technology unfortunately is designed to get as much of your attention as it can. We also at some level want to use our devices to escape and avoid. The only way to approach this is to look at this as a relationship where both parties are contributing to a bad pattern of behaviour. So how do you break this pattern?

As some CEOs in the attention economy have said, our competition is sleep. It’s principally similar [to unconscious consumerism], but the crisis is more pervasive and urgent.

3. Digital hygiene, making tech choices, and choosing calm

Nilekani: If you are in a communication-intensive situation, you could be overwhelmed by the messages and notifications you receive… I choose to limit myself to channels like phone calls, text messages and emails.

Bhojwani: The principle is if you choose clam, productivity follows. But you have to choose calm; calm is something you have to create.

I’ve heard Nandan say that for every 50 requests for his time, he says yes to one of them.

One of the principles we’ve explained in the book is that we use our phones as windows when we should be using them as mirrors. We usually look into the phone to seek something. Whereas it is a much more powerful tool for reflection—to write, to think, to reflect—which allows you to be calm.

Nilekani: Digital is pernicious because of its easy availability. In the physical world, if I go to a bar I know that I am going to socialise; if I go to a library I know I am going to sit down and work; if I go to a park I know I am going for a walk and get some exercise. The fact that there is a different context allows you to switch. In the digital world everything is in the same device—your work, life, relationships. So use simple techniques to carve out different profiles of yourself and switch into that profile. You’ll probably be able to be more calm.

4. The balance of power with consumers: The winner-takes-all model vs technology built for the public good

Nilekani: In the winner-takes-all model, the balance of power shifts and consumers and suppliers can get affected.

The work we’ve done in India on building digital public goods—platforms like Aadhaar, UPI, account aggregator—all these are going to create more competitive, innovative markets where people get the benefit of technology but it is not just captured by a few.

Bhojwani: An interesting question to ask is, what is enough. There’s no end point to it, that’s why we call it the slippery slope of scale. Today you are a company that controls all social media interaction. But that’s not enough so you want a metaverse. 

Why are 15-second short form videos so popular? It’s just short enough that you are in a dissociative state where you are just doom scrolling. So how do we create infrastructure where the collective goals are not separate from the users’ goals? This is possible through regulation and counter-technology—technology built for the public good.

5. How do we enable serendipity in our digital life?    

Bhojwani: I have learnt everything via the internet. The idea behind Create, Communicate and Curate is to align your attention with what you intend to do.

Nilekani: I am a big believer in serendipity. When we talk about the Curate mode where we spend time browsing or reading, that is the time when you will find something which is new and interesting. With algorithmic recommendations where is the serendipity? The algorithms are deciding what next you see.

6. On scale and distributed value

Nilekani: We need scale when you talk about solving large population challenges. Much of the work I've done in the public space, whether it is Aadhaar or being an advisor on UPI, we are talking about millions of people, billions of transactions. You have to design it in a way that you are able to distribute the data.

What we are referring to is scale which concentrates the value in one location and does not share the value. Our model of scale is societal scale where value is distributed. 

Bhojwani: Network effects happen. If the value accrues at the network level, shouldn’t that network belong to all of us?

Nilekani: That is why the account aggregator framework is so strategic. It provides a practical technological way of distributing data where people are in charge of their own data. We will see the value of it in the next 10 years.

Bhojwani: Interoperability has been the solution when you have a concentrated industry—for example in telecom, and in the health insurance space.    

7. FOMO: Are we creating a generation of people who don’t have a large attention span, which hampers the ability to assimilate or reflect? 

Nilekani: Focus is really the scarcity now. And also the ability to connect the dots. 

Bhojwani: The changes are much more tangible than that. Friends in the restaurant business are now thinking of creating an Instagram corner where people will click photos for social media—and in that frame, things are prettier than in the rest of the environment. The problem is not that people are doing it, but that can people really opt out of doing it? 

If you really want to get over your fear of missing out, actually miss out for a while and see if your life changes. 

8. On cryptocurrencies

Nilekani: It cannot be a currency for the simple reason that you need to do transactions at very high volume and very low cost, very low environmental issues and the price should be stable. None of these things are true of crypto. It’s not clear to me that I’ll use crypto to buy vegetables in the market. But it could be an asset class and that’s how the Indian government is thinking about it and saying they'll have a flat rate to tax digital assets. 

I am also happy to have the central bank digital currency (CBDC)—the digital rupee—because the challenge of the crypto world is stable coins, which in my view are unstable coins. Essentially they give you the right to convert at any time from the stable coin to the fiat currency and these guys don’t necessarily have the reserves to back this up. So if there’s a run on the currency, that could cause major challenges for the whole crypto world.

There’s the siren song of decentralisation—there’s as much centralisation in the crypto world as anywhere else. A few sets of guys own most of the bitcoins, a few sets of miners control each chain, a few exchanges control the trading. It's not as if this new world is some nirvana decentralised world.    

Bhojwani: We both agree that you throw a rock in crypto and you hit a scam. Having said that, the idea is, can you do something?

[In climate change], take KlimaDAO. It basically cornered the market for carbon credits. The economics of it changed overnight.  

NFTs: Humans for millennia have been trying to signal status. Now that we all agree that our time is going to be spent doing things digitally, what are the symbols and markers of status? As a thing in the world, its time has arrived. How do you want to engineer this so that it does good for all? But if you ask me should I invest in NFTs, I’d say please don’t. 

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