• Book Review: The Little Black Book of Data and Democracy

    One of the main aims of this website is to provide resources that help people to get more out of their own brain. There are two key approaches to achieving this: 1) raising awareness of the basic ingredients brains need to thrive, the raw materials, the right kind of physical and mental stimulation etc and 2) pointing the finger at aspects of modern life in the developed world that work against your brain’s best interests, processed food, sedentary lifestyle, too much stress. This month’s blog firmly lands in the latter category.

    This book comes highly recommended

    You’ve no doubt heard about the Cambridge Analytic scandal. But do you fully grasp its ramifications? I certainly didn’t until I read this book. You may have an awareness that all sorts of companies place cookies on your computer or smartphone when you use their websites, but do you actually understand what each type of cookie does? Nope, me neither. You probably realise that Facebook, Google, YouTube and various other social media platforms collect personal data on you (and sell it to the highest bidder) in return for your free use of their technology, but have you ever bothered to ready the lengthy Privacy Notices explaining which data is collected and what they can do with it? No? Well you’re not alone.

    Thankfully somebody has bothered to check all this out for us, a man called Kyle Taylor, who spent lockdown writing this incredibly concise, funny, scary, wonderful book all about it. It takes no time at all to read and the 120 fact-packed pages will make you an instant expert on data privacy the next time you’re in a pub or dining with friends. As soon as I read it I felt it was such vital reading for all adults (and older children) that I got hold of a bunch of copies to give to all my family members and a few close friends.

    The truth is it’s high time everybody takes stock of the world we may well all be mindlessly sleep-walking into. If we don’t, we’ll only have ourselves to blame when it all goes wrong. Perpetually postponing the day when we finally find the time to get to the bottom of exactly what each of us are giving away every time we click “Accept All” rather than “Manage Cookies” when we’re hurriedly trying to do something with our devices is no longer acceptable given the knife edge that we’re on without even realising it.

    I’ve long been suspicious of any friend who thinks that virtual assistants like Alexa, Siri and the like are cool technologies to have around the house. Surely it’s obvious that if you’ve given the device permission to listen in to conversations taking place nearby just once, it will be listening to whatever is being said in your home for the rest of time? How else could it respond to the call of its name when you ask it to search the web for a pancake recipe, start a timer or trigger your favourite tune to unwind to? When I verbalise my concerns I’m invariably met with the response: “the conversations in this house aren’t that interesting!” But you’d be surprised how valuable that data is nonetheless and appalled by the kind of predicaments people can find themselves in on the basis of such seemingly innocent data.

    I already had a sense that half of what I read in this book was the case and was very happy to have it confirmed by someone who has really done their research and, importantly, provided evidence to support his claims. I found the other half, the stuff that I was completely unaware of, both fascinating and concerning. And regarding the threat to democracy in the UK (and every other country on the planet for that matter) deeply disturbing.

    Forgive me for one spoiler. My concern is that if you don’t get round to reading the book (if you do want to pick up a copy then click here and stop reading!) you may never grasp this revelation and I think it is extremely important that everybody is aware of what I consider to be the key takeaway point of the book:

    Social media is wired up to monitor how long we spend engaging with different pieces of content. It can tell when we keep reading or watching to the very end and if we decide to follow more links on a similar subject to find out even more. It can also tell when we get bored by a topic and move on to something more interesting, shocking or sexy. So far, so obvious…

    As the algorithms that track our likes and dislikes are designed to feed us more of what we are interested in (simply to hold our attention for longer so they can get more advertising revenue from our use of their services) and less of the content that we are not that interested in, we each end up getting funnelled into one of many different “information silos.” This means that day in day out, the billions of people who consume lots of social media are exposed to carefully-curated content and a person in one information silo will be consuming a completely different set of information to another person in a different information silo. Now while this might not seem terribly important, it really, really is important. It couldn’t be more important, in fact, because of the way it warps people’s sense of reality.

    If two people sat side-by-side on a train are both using their smartphone to skim through their Facebook feed, each feeding them a completely different version of what’s going on in the world and completely opposing takes on any given news story, then they are not living in the same reality. If they are not living in the same reality then even when they are given the same piece of information, they will likely interpret it differently. And if their perception of reality is sufficiently warped, they may make decisions that go expressly against their own best interests.

    If everybody’s perception of reality is fundamentally different then ultimately democracy will fail. Perhaps it already is failing. And we can’t let that happen because while democracy is far from perfect, the alternatives are all much, much worse. The fresh perspective that this book provides regarding the power social media companies have in warping people’s sense of reality explains several foxing real world phenomena. Why do some people love Donald Trump so fervently despite his bizarre behaviour throughout his time in office? Why did so many people in the UK vote for Brexit when the benefits for doing so were far from obvious? This brilliant book goes a further than any other that I’ve read in recent times in helping people better understand the crazy online world we’re living in and the vital need to create global structures of governance to keep an eye on what big tech is doing to society. Because currently, they’re doing whatever they want.

    In addition to these monthly blogs, I regularly tweet about brain and virtual reality-related topics on Twitter (@drjacklewis).

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