Are you the one that takes your decisions? Do you feel free of choosing what you want to see? Or buy? I am really starting to doubt that.
A few days ago I watched a TED Talk of the techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci that kept me thinking about these questions (and more). In her 22-minute talk, she describes how artificial intelligence used by the big tech companies (Facebook, Google, and Amazon) can decide and organize what political or social information you can access to. She talks about control, not ours but their control.
In her speech, she gives examples of different situations in which algorithms and artificial intelligence intercede as promoters of mental diseases. These examples made me think of the well-known phrase “Greater power = Bigger responsibilities”. Facebook and Google, almighty platforms, know all about us, they can show us whatever they want to show us. And here is where dangerous things can happen.
Let’s understand how this works:
They collect data in every webpage we navigate, they create profiles with some interests and some predictive models. If ‘x’ person likes some specific products and has this other specific lifestyle, and he/she buys one product and then another one, Facebook and Google can run similar audiences, similar profiles that are likable to act in the same way and offers them an ad with that specific product or service they are likely to buy. Zeynep Tufekci gives the typical example of an airline promoting trips, airlines use this kind of predictive marketing where they see that if ‘x’ bought a ticket to Rio de Janeiro, a few months later to Rome and then to London, they look for similar profiles of ‘x’, let’s say ‘y’ and offer these same tickets to them. This works great for the airline who probably will sell more tickets but, do you believe ‘y’ was totally free when he/she was exposed to this ad? And perhaps, then by buying it? Us, marketers, would say we just “inspired ‘y’ to take any action he would have taken”.
The problem is when this affects people’s health. Our Inspiration can rapidly turn to a motive to do something self-harmful. Techno-sociologist mentioned the case of people with mental disorders such as bipolarity about to enter a manic phase, potential gamblers, addicts that are exposed to flight promotions to Vegas. We of course can talk about ethical and moral matters, but this could be a chapter aside. Let’s stop at control, is there any control on what they show to who they show? Are people analyzing this kind of exposure? Or it’s just machines that learn how people like us, or them, act and create outcomes based on that without considering any other social or healthy matter.
The same happens when you watch YouTube and you are directed to continue watching videos deep on the subject your first video was of. You will probably end up watching a video of something much more extremist than what you were looking for at first.
Manipulation -> Control
So now that you know how it works, and the risks this algorithm that machine creates after learning about ourselves and our actions (or people similar to us), do you really think you are the one that takes your decisions? Are you considering now that you may be ‘inspired’ or ‘motivated’ or …. ‘pressed’ to do something? Who really has the control?
Hope you liked today’s “Let’s talk about…” topic, I look forward to reading your positions and comments!