How Social Media Screws You by Martin Biber Alberti

Alberti is a man with a grudge and I can understand that. This morning I am in a bad mood and so a good rant is absolutely called for. Alberti’s book takes us step by step through the uses to which our personal data are put without us knowing about it. This personal data having been uploaded by us or collected by cookies on our computers and smart phones and then collated and distributed, compiled, scanned and utilized. This is probably what is being called ‘Big Data’. Huge datasets that are jumbles of all of the available data about everything. Patterns are then found and used. Someone gets paid and someone gets value. There is a business here. It is new and we do not fully understand it. Alberti’s point is that we do not even know it is happening and we are giving in to the ensuing manipulation unwittingly.  The author makes some interesting points and has researched this piece well. I learned quite a lot about the science behind this social manipulation. I learned for example that I am addicted to the dopamine spikes that I get when I receive emails and notifications on my smart phone. This led me to immediately remove some of the applications that added nothing to my life but an excuse to feed my addiction. This much is useful to me immediately and confirms what I have known for some time now, that my life is made complicated by myself and not by my circumstances. Alberti goes further to point out that our actions are constantly monitored and mapped and that what we see is manipulated in response so that we are given what we are supposed to see in a super version of 1984. What we end up seeing are lots and lots of adverts that are either blatant and open or part of an apparently innocent news article. Some statistics being that we notice one in nine adverts and need to see that advert at least three times to remember it. The odds of us clicking on an advert or completing an order can be increased by 150% by using Big Data analysis to skew our universe to put in front of us what we want at the time we are likely to want it. In this transaction we get exposed to more adverts that we might be interested in and the company behind the adverts gets more income. Seems like a win-win economically. So where is the problem? The problem seems to be the age old one that we believe what we see, think all that we see is all there is and do not question enough. We shout to ourselves “I am more than a number”. Yes indeed we are all individual and as much as we hate to admit it, our lives follow clear patterns that make us very predictable. There are millions of people just like me, doing just what I do and choosing just like I do. I am unique but I am just like many other people. I am lazy and so I like to have what I need just where I can reach it, so what is the problem with someone calculating what I want? Again, this is nothing new. What is popular is what is liked and what is liked is what is popular. Pop music played on the radio drives sales and reflects sales. Someone has to make the original choice on popular radio. What is forgotten is that there used to be many other listening opportunities. These days, some searching allows us to find any number of unknown artists online. We can choose to be different and make the effort to do so. It takes effort though. We need to look and we need to be careful to see what is really there rather than what we want to see. Is this not the same argument as Feynman refusing to brush his teeth because there was no clear evidence of effect? Is this the same again as Ben Goldacre continuously berating what he sees as poor science? Yes it is in the sense that any subjective assessment of the world around us is prone to bias. The bias of our common sense “the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen” as Einstein put it so eloquently.

Being an individual takes effort, it takes time and it is lonely. Fundamentally, writing a book as an individual is oxymoronic because one wants to communicate and influence by our writing. To be truly individual we need to convert to a hermit’s life. Myself, I am a member of many groups and tribes. I have supported Sheffield Wednesday since I was 14 years old. Sitting in Hillborough and feeling the emotions of thousands of supporters lifts the experience well beyond seeing the same event at home in a chair. The raw emotion of seeing Lee Briscoe score the winner against Arsenal in the match when Di Canio was sent off, or that bloke scoring in extra time in the play off final in Cardiff and seeing the opposition as one lie down and give up, these events created a emotion so raw and so shared that it is a ‘groupgasm’ that cannot be artificially recreated.

So I personally am not opposed to being in a tribe and I am not opposed to being given opportunities that fits my current emotional or physical situation. What becomes insidious is if these tribal tattoos become permanent, if we can no longer choose to search for the unknown. If there comes a time when our choices are controlled rather than influenced by the actions of our fingers on a keyboard in the first few years of life, then we have finally becomes ants and the controllers of our eusociality myrmecologists.

As a thought provoking book “How Social Media Screws You” excels and I am the better for it. As an influencer of my sensibility it has also affected my immediate behavior. As a portent for things to come, let us hope that we take responsibility for our own choices and learn about the world around us sufficiently so we can be free to explore.

There is wonder out there and there are still frontiers beyond which we are free to explore. We are still the “masters of our fate” and I am certainly “the captain of my soul”.

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