Knowing yourself better than an algorithm does

Some of the most ancient philosophers were advocates of the data privacy law.

At the heart of philosophical wisdom is to know one’s self. From Socrates and Buddha to Descartes, knowing one’s self has been a recurring theme. But why is that so? Let us use a stark example from modern times to uncover this.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is one of several to have rocked Facebook’s boat. This brilliant piece describes how the firm influenced voters by influencing their political leanings. So how was Facebook complicit here?

At the heart of their method is a psychometric analysis. Cambridge Analytica wrote an algorithm that used Facebook “likes” to build psychographic profiles of individuals. With 80 likes, the algorithm knew more about somebody than their friends did. With 150 likes, it was better informed than a parent. At 300 likes, it outdid their partner. Somewhere beyond 300 likes, it knew more about somebody than they knew themselves.

How well we know ourselves has a quantitative measure – 300+ Facebook likes.

What is the risk here? That anybody who has access to this data can influence your behaviour – to make you vote for a particular candidate, buy a jacket online or get you to perform a hate crime. Advertisers have always been trying to push these buttons, but data just arms them with steroids.

Sure, most corporations aren’t evil – they are not out there to influence political outcomes or cause large scale violence. But their best interests are not in our best interest.

The first line of defense against these dark arts is to know one’s self. Traditionally, knowing one’s self was optional – exercised by monks or philosophers and largely ignored by everybody else. In the future, it might turn into a survival skill in an environment where a handful of people manipulate the rest of the population.

In the long run though, regardless of how mindful one is, an algorithm would eventually beat us with sufficient data. It is only a question of how much data. The only way to avoid this is to take ownership of our own data – something that the European Data Protection legislation allows us to do.

It is telling that data protection is a much bigger topic in Europe than in other parts of the world. Perhaps it is no coincidence that most modern philosophy has its birthplace in Europe.

Inspiration: An interview with Yuval Naoh Harari

2 thoughts on “Knowing yourself better than an algorithm does

  1. This is a very interesting post

    Two books that really shaped my thinking about this are “Manufacturing Consent” and “Who owns the future”. The most important thing that I learned from these two books is that the underlying systems are not geared towards enlightening people (or to bring them together in the case of Facebook), but are rather schemes of making money – businesses in the old fashioned sense. When we look at them as businesses, the customers are not the people using their software, but the advertisers who are willing to pay huge amounts for what they consider to be a very valuable asset (personal data). This is a counter intuitive inversion where the customers are advertisers and the products are the people using the software! I am actually astounded by what I read in “Manufacturing Consent”, where Chomsky demonstrated these effects much before the internet era. It seems like things have gotten worse since he wrote though.

    Liked by 1 person

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