We tell Google things we wouldn't tell our loved ones, or even our own doctors.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has a sneaking suspicion that everybody lies. Instead, we seem to be far more honest with a website than with each other. The things that people type into the Google search bar, Stephens-Davidowitz says, reveal far more about a person than any in-depth interviewer could ever dream of. Even how racist someone can be. What's alarming is that prior to the 2008 election, Stephens-Davidowitz saw a big uptick in racist searches coming from alarming places. He had expected the South to make perhaps a portion of these searches, but he was shocked to see the searches coming from Michigan, Pennsylvania, and more. And to cap that off, most of those searches were hardly fringe searches: they matched the amount of bigger-name searches like Lakers, migraines, and The Daily Show.
In what Tristan Harris calls a "race to the bottom of the brain stem," media companies and advertisers will do almost anything to keep your eyes locked where they want them.
Attention is a limited resource. There's just 24 hours per human per day, and every advertiser wants it. The attention economy has always existed—penny papers competed with each other the same way streaming services do now—but today we feel it so much more because our devices are no longer plugged into walls; we can take them with us, to have entertainment and knowledge wherever we go. But if only it were just those two things. Tristan Harris, a design thinker and former ethicist at Google, explains how advertising has become increasingly persuasive and tailored in the age of big data. Companies sell users' attention and personal information to the highest bidder, who uses it to manipulate thoughts and beliefs—be it about products or politics—with very little transparency. This critically undermines our free will and democracy. "So many of our institutions depend on us having sovereign minds and sovereign ideas," Harris says. It's time to start rigorously questioning advertising's business model, and reorganize the attention economy to align with public wellbeing. To find out more about Tristan Harris, head to tristanharris.com.
Here's one use for all that harvested personal data that you might not object to. Algorithms and big data are no longer just for profit; they can bring us self-awareness and growth.
Who knows more about you than anyone else? Perhaps it’s not so much who, but what. Our intimacy with our devices has surpassed our closeness with most of our friends and family, says Nichol Bradford, and an algorithm never forgets – it will remember everything you ever typed into a search box, how you voted, when you were sick, where your scroll slowed down on a page, how quickly you clicked a picture that it mathematically knew you would like. Until now, big data like this has been used purely for profit, so that media companies can sell advertising, and e-commerce sites can move units. But that’s about to change, explains Bradford. There is tech emerging that can not only track your external behavior, wishes and desires, but read your inner biological signals and interpret micro-expressions on your face to accurately assess your psychological state. If you put this technology into the hands of individuals, not just companies, it could help us manage our habits. This technology could first show us who we really are – objectively, with none of our ego-protective denial or projection – then be a tool to change our behavior and thinking patterns for the better. Nichol Bradford is the author of The Sisterhood.
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