“The world is now awash in data and we can see consumers in a lot
Max Levchin (PayPal co-founder)
There was a time not too
long ago when people from all walks of life gathered around the proverbial
water cooler in offices, places of worship, community centers, schools,
local sporting events or watering holes. This ritual was underpinned by a shared experience based
on a national or local conversation or a cultural artifact like a popular new
book, advertisement or TV show that everyone had recently experienced.
It was not that people
gathered around and sang Kumbaya, but
that we brought a variety of viewpoints relating to
the same event. I remember such gatherings being a melting pot of diverse perspectives,
and passionate opinions; some that we vehemently agreed with and others we
disagreed with, equally vehemently. But irrespective of where we stood on an
issue, we all walked away without animosity and with a perspective we would not
have otherwise had.
I am not suggesting that
we left with changed minds or that we were competing to bring others around to
our point of view, but that by listening, discussing and accepting the fact
that there are different reactions to exactly the same content, it allowed us
to build empathy and I believe helped to open minds in the long run; and being face-to-face they were also
civil and respectful.
The internet, with its ability to
turn the planet into a virtual global square, was meant
to be the ultimate water cooler and bring us even closer together through
diverse and shared experiences on a scale
unimaginable before, but the opposite has transpired.
In country after country, social
media feeds and discussion forums are filled with disagreement and hate. Once respected
members of society like journalists, academics and scholars are engaging in
shouting matches on TV screens, while family members are unfriending each other
on social media. Research shows that this generation is more lonely and unhappy than any before it.
Nobody seems willing to
entertain or discuss a point of
view slightly different from their own. We have lost
the ability for nuanced conversation and seem only to find comfort in
absolutism. And we have eroded our ability to empathise with those who do not
share our finite and inflexible worldviews.
It’s as if we have all stopped
talking to each other, and now only talk at each
other. What happened?
To begin with, it is true that we no longer reside in neighborhoods populated
with a broad mix people from different walks of life. Increasingly we live,
work and socialize only with people with similar income and educational
backgrounds. The majority of educated urbanites have long stopped attending
places of worship or congregating in local centers where they might still
fraternize with a wider cross-section of society and
Even online we have
retreated into echo chambers and digital fortresses filled with
similarly-minded people, and our social rituals have been replaced with
impersonal digital ones. We chat with friends on WhatsApp, visit grandma on
Skype and share all significant milestones with extended family through email
and social media.
While it is true income
and educational segregation have been in part responsible for
our growing divide, I believe that digital targeting technology, invented by
the advertising and social media industry, along with the growing
sophistication of how much data is being used, has contributed to our loss of
empathy, inability to compromise and increasing vitriol.
Not only are massive amounts of personal data being accumulated, but it is
being used to divide people into groups and to manipulate behaviour.
Every advertiser and marketer has
always wanted to connect with customers on a more personal level, but it was
never possible to talk to us on a one-to-one basis until recently. The sophistication of digital technology
allows companies to monitor every keystroke, eye movement, voice command,
even physical movement, and, more worryingly, they are now able to put it all together to create a startlingly
granular and deeply accurate view of our daily lives, habits and motivations on
an individual level.
Like most innovations, this type of
data accumulation was done for targeting of products and to deliver
personalised content; so people would no longer waste time looking at diaper
ads when they wanted to buy shoes. The idea was to
accumulate so much data about each individual that it would allow marketers to
get so precise that they would always show the right ad, with the right
product message, or right piece of content, at the very moment we were looking
Sounds great in theory, but nobody
considered the dangerous
and unintended consequences of such sophisticated tracking and predictive
algorithms that now power every website, internet service and
mobile app. Or the ability to use it for things other than selling us
shoes and diapers.
Granted, most advertisers still use personal data to sell more shoes or
diapers, but because the use of this technology has proliferated far beyond
marketing and media and is used by virtually every industry and by
governments, it has greatly increased the potential
for information to fall into the wrong hands, and to be used to manipulate and
influence behaviour of individuals and groups.
We need look no further
than the 2016 US election. We
know the effectiveness with which state-sponsored Russian actors used ad-targeting
technology on platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter and other sites to
target, test and fine-tune messages that spread
various bits of misinformation. Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics
firm that briefly worked with Trump’s election team, legally bought and harvested personal
data of 50 million Facebook users (and their friends) from an academic who
had built a Facebook app, to influence and manipulate voting behaviour.
It is important to
understand just how sophisticated targeting technology is today. Anyone can accurately target the 38 year old baseball loving,
Democrat voting, Budweiser drinking and Nike shoe collector on the Upper East
Side of Manhattan, as well as their Grandma in Bhopal, India.
The targeting is both granular and precise.
In addition, you can
exclude people by age, ethnicity, religious belief or political affiliation, thereby ensuring
efficacy of your message among only like-minded people. Additionally, I could
ensure that the message I show grandma is not even seen by her neighbours, even
when they are all on the same page on the same website or watching the same TV show (known as addressable TV).
This is what I refer to
as division by data,
when data is used to segment and sub-segment every
section of the population, with each segment further refined with more granular
data until it gets down to an individual level based on which algorithms decide
“what” to show people.
What this means is that
what I see on my Facebook newsfeed is not what my wife, my neighbour or
colleague sees. With addressable TV, companies can show different ads to
different people in the same area code and building while they are watching the
same programs. The same is true of our Twitter feed, news, iTunes and Netflix
recommendations and even Google search.
Ask a liberal and a
conservative friend to type in the exact same search query,
e.g. global warming, on their respective computers and see how different the
results and ‘facts’ they get are. I
urge every skeptic to read this article about an experiment conducted by Dr.
Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for
Behavioural Research and Technology: “Epstein conducted five experiments in
two countries to find that biased rankings in search
results can shift the opinions of undecided voters. If Google tweaks its algorithm to show more
positive search results for a candidate, the searcher may form a more positive
opinion of that candidate.”
Consider that Facebook
has become the primary “source of news for 44% of Americans” and now boasts over two billion active users
worldwide and Google is what the world relies
on to search for news, information and facts, and
both are driven by this underlying ‘personalisation and targeting’ philosophy that I call division
by data. Think about the fact that the greatest source of influence on human
minds is still the power of persuasion - one that is driven by repeated exposure to the same message.
This is where the notion
of using data obsessively to personalise everything down to the
individual level has gone horribly wrong. By treating human beings like objects
and dividing them into ever smaller
groups that only see content, information, news and even ‘facts’
uniquely tailored and created based on their preferences and biases, we might
manage to increase ad sales,
but we also increase societal divisions by reducing
the ability to find common ground on issues.
In the digital age, we
have effectively replaced our real and proverbial water coolers with bottles of
water that can be dynamically flavoured to meet individual tastes, and with
this hyper-precise targeting we have ensured that we no longer have shared
experiences that human
beings have relied on for centuries as a way to build bonds that lead to
diversity of thought and open-mindedness.
This is a solvable
problem, but until we find ways to restore our water coolers in the digital age
and craft sensible new regulations on data privacy, sharing and targeting, we
will continue to weaken every democracy and hamper our shared progress.