Know thyself

Every blog I write inevitably involves some research and fact checking. I don’t wish my imposter syndrome to be exposed (at least not in the humbling domain of an online blog!), so I need to be sure that the little knowledge I have in each area of discussion is backed up with some solid facts and figures. Unfortunately, the more you dig to confirm a particular fact, the more you find that contradicts or puts in question the original basis of understanding. Even something as simple as the quotation I used at the beginning of this piece seems controversial. “Know thyself” was something I had heard of – I don’t know when or where or from whom it was acquired, but it was lurking in the back of my mind; a memory gained at some point in my life.  When I started thinking about how to structure this article, it seemed the perfect quotation. But to fact-check its origination, I have delved into areas outside of my prior knowledge, such as the existence of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi where the quotation was once said to be inscribed or how it was used and interpreted by philosophers such as Socrates, Plato or Rousseau. Scratch under the surface of what you believed to be true and you’ll find multiple strata of questions and contradictions. But scratching takes effort and we live in a time of immediate answers, delivered following the briefest of questions to Siri/Alexa or Google.  The temptation is to assume the truth of the response and move on, but there may be good reasons why we should resist such temptation.

There are two themes to this piece. The first questions whether the information we put into the internet could be a source of better self-knowledge and understanding. The second, linked to the first, asks whether there needs to be a better trade-off between the information we provide to the internet and how that data is being used.

The real genesis of this piece dates back to 2018 at the time of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. There were many facets to this story and the implications were widespread, but the piece that I was curious about at the time was the use of data on a section of Facebook users, collected and compiled via algorithms to generate a profile of the individual. It was alleged that the data was then put to a range of nefarious uses, as one quote from an individual using the data illustrates: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons.”[1] At the time, it was no secret that the tech firms employed big data to create profiles on individuals for the purposes of targeted marketing, but this scandal highlighted the extent to which personal characteristics were used as the basis for manipulative campaigns with a view to directed outcomes.

But if that data could build a profile of an individual so effectively and accurately that it could then be used to encourage that person to act, puppet-like, in a particular way, surely that information in the hands of the profiled person would be a gold mine? In how many interviews have you been asked the question, “what words would your colleagues use to describe you” and you’ve scrambled around for words that best reflect you – or least put you in the best light for the job!  Or those 360-degree feedback sessions where people with whom you work with haven’t quite articulated the essence of you.    

Imagine instead, a psychological profile – not built from laboratory-controlled responses to a psychometric questionnaire, resulting in a Myers-Briggs or similar output – but one formed of thousands of data points you have created via your online engagements; with no intent of gaming or influencing the output. I wonder whether we would be surprised at what we saw. I am sure we would be familiar with most of the traits shown, but there may be aspects that surprise and perhaps this process would provide a less biased picture of how we are truly perceived. But why do this? If we have a sharper insight to who we are and how we are perceived, are we not better equipped to understand how well our motivations align with our chosen direction in, say, our work-life?  Or in the workplace as we increasingly seek diversity in decision-making, perhaps having a clearer picture of who we are will better inform the composition of teams, the dynamic of discussion and the effectiveness of outcomes?

I suspect that I am being naïve in my hope that such data would be forthcoming. Aside from confirming the breadth of the information held and exposing the tech companies to civil liberty challenge, release to the profiled individual would result in a change in their behaviour which would undermine the commercial raison d’être of collecting the data in the first place.

The process by which we engage and interact online was the subject of a recently published article in the online journal, Nature Human Behaviour[2]. This fascinating piece examines how the growth in the availability of information – particularly online – has required technology companies to be more adept at deploying more and more effective algorithms in order to grab that ever elusive resource: human attention. The piece argues that behavioural sciences should take a more active role in shaping the online ecosystem so that the end user is better informed as to the efficacy of the sources behind the information delivered. The authors argue that the “relationship between platforms and people is profoundly asymmetric: platforms have deep knowledge of users’ behaviour, whereas users know little about how their data is collected, how it is exploited for commercial or political purposes, or how it and the data of others are used to shape their online experience.” They argue that the answer lies in greater transparency from big data coupled with interventions to better inform people about the data they are accessing.

So the algorithmic genie seems well and truly out of the bottle. The question remains whether it can grant us the wish of better self-knowing, by us receiving the psychological profile on which it relies or, failing that, do we need a more transparent and open internet ecosystem to identify how our information is being used and systems to guide us to better interpretations of the information we receive?

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