But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die – Genesis 2:17
Ignorance really can be bliss. Human beings aren’t the angels we think we are. Everyone has a little bit of Dr. Jekyll and a little bit of Mr. Hyde, and if we aren’t careful, technology threatens to bring out more of the Mr. Hyde. We could be headed towards a future where advertisers know way too much about us, and we may be better off to let them remain a bit ignorant. That, in a nutshell, is what the rest of this post is about.
Nick Huhn sparked my interest in this topic a few weeks ago when he wrote about GoogleMesh, Facebook, and Artificial Intelligence. He asks what life will be like when Google is everywhere, incorporating your behavior at an ever deeper granularity to help advertisers make the most of their budgets.
Imagine a world in which someone knew where you are, what you were doing, who you were talking to and what you like to spend your money on. It’s not hard to conceptualize if you’re a believer in an omnipotent deity. But now imagine companies have omnipotence over your life, lifestyle and livelihood. A company that blends all this information into a predictive index of where you’ll go next, who you’ll be around, and – drum roll – again, how and when you like to separate from your disposable income.
It could be a great thing in many ways, if every tiny action or behavior could be measured. You can be shown the stuff you need and want at the time(s) that you most need and want it. The problem with this situation is that it rests on the assumption that what we want is what is good for us, or good for society, and the deeper you go into the human psyche, the less that is true. To understand why, you need to learn about Phineas Gage.
Human Beings Aren’t What We Think We Are
We like to believe that human beings are special. We want to have free will, we want to be ordained by God to be here and run the earth, and we want to believe we are inherently good. We don’t like to think that our brains are simply primate brains with a little extra stuff, and that primate brains are just mammal brains with a little extra stuff, and that mammal brains are just reptile brains with… well, you get the picture. We prefer to think that the evolution of brains follows a trend until it reaches us, but then we are a discontinuity. That belief was first challenged in the mid 1800s when a railroad worker named Phineas Gage was in an accident that sent a railroad spike through his frontal lobes. Gage was apparently a hard working honest kind of guy who, after the accident, was transformed into an impulsive drunkard that could not hold down a job.
The question of course, is why would an injury to the frontal lobes change a personality so dramatically? Unless, of course, behavior is controlled in large part by the frontal lobes. As Wikipedia puts it:
Gage’s condition led to changes in the scientific perception of the function and compartmentalisation of the brain with regards to emotion and personality. Gage’s case is cited as among the first evidence suggesting that damage to the frontal lobes could alter aspects of personality and affect socially appropriate interaction
Thus, with Phineas Gage, modern brain science was born.
The things we have discovered about ourselves since Gage are not always pretty. In Liars, Lovers and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are, the authors claim that most of us are capable of dark deeds – things we believe we would never do – things most others believe we would never do too. But under the right conditions, in certain narrow situations, even the best of us would lie, cheat, steal, kill. We don’t really have “personalities.” We just respond in certain ways to certain situations, and we try to keep our general situations stable and similar.
In many ways, we are animals with frontal lobes. We have a special brain circuit that allows us to be rational, to override our emotions, and to think about the long-term instead of reacting to the short-term. But as technology digs deeper, as our actions are measured at finer levels of granularity, we may catch more of our base primal behavior than we anticipate.
Will we measure the number of times an otherwise upstanding man glances at the cleavage of the women around him? Will we measure the increased heart rate of a recovered gambling addict passing a slot machine? Will we measure the long stare of a former alcoholic on a bottle of bourbon? And if so, what kind of ads will we show them? Will we target them with ads for cheap porn, $50 in free gambling chips at the casino, and happy hour at the local pub, respectively? Will we cater to what they say they want when their frontal lobes have a chance to encourage rationality, or to what we know they want deep down in the corners of their primal minds?
Progress Is Not Always What It Seems
I know what you are thinking. This technology is progress, and progress will make us better, not worse. But that is not always true. Look at the American diet. In the early 1900s, you had to be upper middle class to be able to afford meat on a regular basis. Most families couldn’t afford it. Now food is abundant and instead of starving families we have an obesity epidemic.
The creation of the Web has also been a double edged sword. It provides vast opportunity to acquire knowledge, connect with friends, and do all kinds of good and noble things, but it also provides easier access to all the bad things that previous social constraints may have kept us from perusing. Mix that with anonymity and you get a bad result.
Technology that measures every single thing that we do – technology that is ubiquitous, could turn out to be a similar double edged sword.
Ignorance Really Can Be Bliss
My sophomore year in college I lived in an apartment across the hall from a guy named Brad. Brad was a math superstar and he was only a freshman, but people predicted big things for him. Brad took pride in telling me he had never taken a drink of alcohol, and didn’t intend to. His reasoning was that if he didn’t know what he was missing, he would never be tempted by it.
Shortly after the spring semester began, I saw Brad leaving his apartment and he told me he got drunk for the first time New Years Eve. Then he commented on how much fun it was and said, ” so the second time I got drunk was the next night.” Brad flunked that semester. Sometimes, when you don’t know your limits or the level of your discipline, it’s better not to know what you are missing.
The point I want to make is that measuring every infinitesimal action of our lives may not be a good thing. It may allow advertisers to discover the primal urges that drive us via the small signals we give off before our rational frontal lobes have a chance to act. It may mean we see advertisements that cater to our base needs of food, sex, status, power, gossip, and all the impulses we try to control if we have 2 seconds to think about it first. It may mean that advertisers find more money catering to our Mr. Hyde sides, when we wish we could be the more respectable Dr. Jekyll.
The Communciation Example
I confess that I struggle with the ease of communication that the Internet brings. Email, blogging, Facebook feeds, Twitter… some days I feel like I spend all day reading and writing chit-chat when I should be blocking out a few hours for some serious analytical thinking or productive task execution. I used to be able to sit and read non-fiction stuff like textbooks for 3-4 hours at a time, but my brain doesn’t want to do that anymore. I think it’s been primed to run at webspeed – to process lots of small but inconsequential data instead of deep complex thoughts. Most people who know me will tell you that I don’t even like communicating that much… it’s just so damn available that it becomes a habit.
Now take that down one level of granularity. Imagine that the availability of communication tools was instead the constant availability of stuff I wanted to buy at that very moment based on instant pitches to deep primal impulses. Scary huh? And that’s ultimately what I want to ask…
Is Google’s goal of collecting so much information leading us to a worse future? Is ubiquitous data collection something we should strive for? Maybe we should think twice before we eat that apple, because sometimes it is better to leave things left unknown.