When Data becomes weapon.
TLDR: A long-winded story from my school days that speaks to weaponizing in the digital age. Advance apologies to fellow school mates Satya Nadella and Shantanu Narayen for vilifying an innocuous childhood snack.
Something strange happened one Friday afternoon about 20 years ago at The Hyderabad Public School. On Friday afternoons, during recess, special snacks and tea were distributed to students, perhaps as an incentive to avoid cutting school early. This was a vestigial tradition in HPS from its imperialist origins in 1923 as the Jagirdars college, created exclusively for the sons of Jagirdars —an aristocracy of landowners that formed the subcontinent’s gentry. The college was renamed to The Hyderabad Public School shortly after India’s independence from the British in 1947.
Amongst these snacks, that included mint chutney sandwiches and potato bondas (a south Indian version of the samosa), was a biscuit called the Osmania biscuit. Its namesake, Mir Osman Ali Khan, once the richest person in the world was the last of the Nizams — a muslim royal family that ruled the then principality of Hyderabad until 1948 when his mercenary-supported army surrendered to the newly minted Government of India thereupon integrating the state of Hyderabad into the Indian republic.
On that summer day in 1997 or ’98, some middle-school pioneer in his khaki shorts and colored epaulettes thought it a good idea to fling the Osmania biscuit across the school yard. The biscuit’s shape and composition made it airworthy enough for it to become a sort of frisbee. It then landed on the ground and crumbled into powdered pieces.
This mostly wheat-flour biscuit is brittle enough that it crumbles into a fine powder when crushed. Legend has it that Mir Osman Ali Khan fancied a snack that was both sweet and savory and a localized version of our imperial overlords’ pastime of dunking biscuits in tea.
The day after this school yard kitty hawk moment, a few more airworthiness tests were surreptitiously conducted. Only this time the biscuits were aimed at a few unsuspecting souls. In that moment, what started out as an end-of-schoolweek personal snack turned into an Edible Flying Object and became weaponized.
When these disc-shaped munchies landed on the model Indian student’s coconut-oil lathered heads, they turned bonny school kids into hot messes — stripping them, upon impact, of any current social status they enjoyed within the walls of the school.
Over the next few days, a Biscuit Blitzkrieg ensued that engulfed Friday afternoons at the The Hyderabad Public School into a food fight of epic proportions. Pop-ups selling umbrellas briefly emerged at edges of the school grounds.
Pencil and lunch boxes turned into ammunition magazines. Special-purpose slingshots were invented to carefully house these brittle wheat bombs before launching them in surgical strikes. No soul was spared. Schools kids who, only moments before were reciting Rabindranath Tagore and discovering Henry Louis Vivian Derozio’s nationalist poems radicalized into school yard revolutionaries, snipers and cluster bombers firing torrents of anonymized & hormonal powdered rage like a stream of internet comments.
At one point, the principal himself was targeted. This archduke and supreme disciplinarian of the former Jagirdars’ college, with his tight fitting safari suit and regal hair parting was reduced to taking cover in a nearby thorny hedge.
So how on earth does this relate to Data?
This school memory was my first encounter with pre-internet virality and hacker-culture.
The Osmania biscuit represents to me, a metaphor for how harmless data, metadata, and internet behavior such as Facebook Likes can be wielded into a beast weapon that can strip basic human rights and liberty and empower despots-in-the-making.
In our collective frenzy of archiving, collecting, centralizing, liberating, publishing, sensor-ing and storing data; we technologists (civic or otherwise) may be inadvertently creating tools that can be easily repurposed to target and destroy.
That both the current CEOs of Microsoft and Adobe, the stewards and purveyors of globally deployed operating systems, data centers, internet browsers and PDF documents were once khaki shorts and epaulette wearing schoolmates makes this story that much more dunk-worthy.