How Facebook Takes Your Emotional Temperature

If you actually look at Facebook's effect on our brains, it’s like taking a drug. The problem, according to Jonathan Harris, is that with software that makes you come back over and over again, you become the product.

One of the graphics that’s in my project The Human Face of Big Data was created by Nigel Holmes. It is about Facebook, and it describes how the company finds correlations between the things that you’re passionate about and finding other people that share the same passions as you.  


One of the essays I also love in the book is by a young guy named Jonathan Harris.  And he talks about the fact that when they have meetings at Facebook in the morning to talk about new features or ways that they can create new tools, they talk about what’s the serotonin in this feature.  And he said it’s like how do you give people a little endorphin hit by something that’s very pleasurable, something that’s delightful about Facebook.

His concern is that he thinks that there’s two different kinds of software.  There's software that solves the problem and get’s out of the way, where the software is the product.  And then there’s software that makes you want to come back for more and more and more and more, to the point where it’s almost addictive.  Harris says if you actually look at the effect on our brains, it’s like taking a drug.  And the problem in his mind -- this is his opinion -- is that with software that makes you come back over and over again, you become the product.

So instead of the software being the product, you’re the product that's being sold to advertisers. 

So it’s one of the cautionary notes that we've shared in this Human Face of Big Data project, which is about technology that we use for good or bad. Some people think that Facebook is fantastic, other people are very worried about it.  I find Facebook absolutely fascinating because I don’t think there’s ever been any one source that had so much information about each of us -- who we talk to, who our friends are, what books we read, what we're buying, what movies we saw, what our travel is.

I actually think that Facebook has been very restrained in terms of how they've used that.  I think they’ve been very cautious about not alienating the billion people on Earth that are using it.  But in terms of future potential, I’m a Mac fanatic, so I like the ads in MacWorld.  If you took the ads out, the magazine wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to me.  Targeted ads, I think, are useful because I don’t want to see all the crap.  I’m not interested in buying a Mercedes Benz, but I am interested in buying a new MacBook Air.  So if organizations like Facebook can actually make the ads more relevant to me, if they know what I am interested in, I have no problem with that.

I don’t necessarily agree with Jonathan - Jonathan's criticism - but I think it's something we should be thinking about because if it is having the same effect on our brains as an addictive drug, no one’s regulating this, nobody's even thinking about it that way.

Infographic:

© Nigel Holmes 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data
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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.