Welcome to the Church of Humanism Blog

Here, as often as possible, the church founder Rev. Joseph Ben-David or other church members will comment on relevant topics of the day. You are all welcome to join in on the conversation by emailing your thoughts and opinons to the email address shown below.  We look forward to hearing from you.  

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Sounding The Alarm

Over the last 20 years we’ve experienced tremendous technological advances. We’ve seen computers transformed from large corporate computational equipment to more personal tools. They’ve changed from desktop devices, to laptops, to handhelds, such as tablets and smartphones. The most important technological change was the introduction of the internet. It made it possible for us to use these devices anywhere and at any time. Throughout these advances we’ve changed along with them. Now we do business online (over the internet) and use these advanced tools to communicate with each other (social networking). We are able to get information quicker and in greater abundance. For the most part these changes have been good (convenience and more information) but I don’t think many of us have considered at what cost or to what degree these changes are shaping our lives. Some have become completely dependent on tablets and smartphones. We walk around transfixed with these devices ignoring what is going on around us. We use them to record our daily lives, to communicate with our friends and family, to purchase merchandise and to stay current on the news of the day.

As a retired Information technology (IT) professional I want to sound the alarm that our dependency on these technologies is having unintended consequences on us. In particular, these underlying tools that operate these devices (big data and algorithms) are being used in an underhanded way by governments and corporations to control our thinking and our behavior to bring about hate and fear within us. 

You have all heard how Facebook was used to sow division and help elect Donald Trump.  It has been all over the news for the last few years. Last year there was a report about how a British company, Cambridge Analytica, harvested more than 50 million Facebook profiles to create targeted messages to Facebook users, they called "persuadables". The intent was to generate hate and fear so that these potential voters would lean towards Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election.  Recently there was a documentary on Netflix called the Great Hack that showed how the Brexit campaign over 2 years ago was the Petri dish for what was to come during the American 2016 presidential election. Check out the reference 6 below. It is a TED talk by Carole Cadwalladr regarding Facebook’s role in the leave campaign that influenced the Brexit vote. Carole was a main participant in the above Netflix documentary.     

We have to wonder what else is going on! Governments and corporations such as the US, China, Russia, Facebook and Google, to name a few, collect information about us. It’s called “Big data”. According to the article Life in a Quantified Society, reference 5 below the definition of big data is “information about individuals and groups that has been extracted from larger data sets by a variety of analytical techniques. These data sets are collected by public and private actors from sources that play a big part in our lives today: social media, credit scores, online search histories, phone apps, consumer loyalty clubs, online purchase histories, and even the products you own, such as a car that tracks your driving habits or a mattress that collects data on your body temperature and sleep movement—these personal items collectively make up what is known as the “internet of things.” Algorithms utilize this data. These algorithms “process large volumes of data to make split-second decisions about who we are, what we want, what we do, and what we might do in the future. Algorithms are generally proprietary in nature and therefore secret. This type of automated decision making was introduced into financial systems in the 1990s through high-frequency trading and is now used in ways that affect the lives of more and more people.”5 I think it’s obvious we have to question how governments and corporations are using what they are learning about us. The article Cambridge Analytica and online manipulation, reference 3 below, states “that not just Cambridge Analytica, but most of the current online ecosystem, is an arm’s race to the unconscious mind: notifications, microtargeted ads, autoplay plugins, are all strategies designed to induce addictive behavior, hence to manipulate.“   This article also stated “In today’s digital ecosystem, wannabe demagogues can use big data analytics to uncover cognitive vulnerabilities from large user datasets and effectively exploit them in a manner that bypasses individual rational control. For example, machine learning can be used to identify deep-rooted fears among pre-profiled user groups which social-media bots can subsequently exploit to foment anger and intolerance.”

I know this is not something we think much about, up until now I certainly hadn’t.  Should we be concerned?  Are we forfeiting control of our lives (what we think, how we feel, and how we behave) because of the conveniences these technological devices provide?  To take back control we need to come up with mechanisms to protect ourselves and hold governments and corporations accountable.  As an example, this year the European Union (EU) “recently adopted EU General Data Protection Regulation, with its principle of purpose limitation (data collectors are required to specify the purpose of collecting personal information at the time of collection) is likely to partly defuse the current toxic digital environment.”3 We need to see the data collected on us and have the ability to opt out (remove the already collected data and prevent any further collection).  And when registering onto an online service or social media platform such as Facebook, Google, Instagram, Linkedin, etc. we need to know their data policy, read the terms of service and make sure we have the ability to rescind any acceptance at any time.   In essence we need to know our privacy related options.  As stated in Cambridge Analytica and online manipulation, reference 3 below,we need to consider whether we should set for the digital space a firm threshold for cognitive liberty. Cognitive liberty highlights the freedom to control one’s own cognitive dimension (including preferences, choices and beliefs) and to be protected from manipulative strategies that are designed to bypass one’s cognitive defenses.

I welcome everyone’s feedback. E-mail me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. I look forward to hearing from you.

References

  1. BIG-DATA ALGORITHMS ARE MANIPULATING US ALL CATHAY O’NEIL BUSINESShttps://www.wired.com/2016/10/big-data-algorithms-manipulating-us/?mbid=email_onsiteshare
  2. Don’t Confuse Persuasion and Manipulation – Your Customers Won’t Like It March 27,2018 https://zoovu.com/blog/persuasion-vs-manipulation/
  3. Cambridge Analytica and Online Manipulation By Marcello Ienca, Effy Vayena on March 30, 2018 https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/cambridge-analytica-and-online-manipulation/?WT.mc_id=send-to-friend
  4. What Netflix’s ‘Great Hack’ Gets Wrong About Cambridge Analytica By Micah L. Sifry August 6 2019 https://www.thenation.com/article/cambridge-analytica-facebook-hack/
  5. Life in a Quantified Society Open Society Foundation May 2019 https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/explainers/life-quantified-society
  6. Facebook’s role in Brexit – and the threat to Democracy Carole Cadwalladr TED April 2019 https://www.ted.com/talks/carole_cadwalladr_facebook_s_role_in_brexit_and_the_threat_to_democracy
  7. Code-Dependent: Pros and Cons of the Algorithm Age BY LEE RAINIE AND JANNA ANDERSON https://www.pewinternet.org/2017/02/08/code-dependent-pros-and-cons-of-the-algorithm-age/