Do You Know Yourself Better Than The Data Algorithms Know You?


We are already becoming tiny chips inside a giant system that nobody really understands. Every day I absorb countless data bits through emails, phone calls and articles; process the data; and transmit back new bits through more emails, phone calls and articles. I don’t really know where I fit into the great scheme of things, and how my bits of data connect with the bits produced by billions of other humans and computers. I don’t have time to find out, because I am too busy answering emails. This relentless dataflow sparks new inventions and disruptions that nobody plans, controls or comprehends.

But no one needs to understand. All you need to do is answer your emails faster. Just as free-market capitalists believe in the invisible hand of the market, so Dataists believe in the invisible hand of the dataflow. As the global data-processing system becomes all-knowing and all-powerful, so connecting to the system becomes the source of all meaning. The new motto says: “If you experience something — record it. If you record something — upload it. If you upload something — share it.”

Dataists further believe that given enough biometric data and computing power, this all-encompassing system could understand humans much better than we understand ourselves. Once that happens, humans will lose their authority, and humanist practices such as democratic elections will become as obsolete as rain dances and flint knives.

Even though humanists were wrong to think that our feelings reflected some mysterious “free will”, up until now humanism still made very good practical sense. For although there was nothing magical about our feelings, they were nevertheless the best method in the universe for making decisions — and no outside system could hope to understand my feelings better than me. Even if the Catholic Church or the Soviet KGB spied on me every minute of every day, they lacked the biological knowledge and the computing power necessary to calculate the biochemical processes shaping my desires and choices. Hence, humanism was correct in telling people to follow their own heart. If you had to choose between listening to the Bible and listening to your feelings, it was much better to listen to your feelings. The Bible represented the opinions and biases of a few priests in ancient Jerusalem. Your feelings, in contrast, represented the accumulated wisdom of millions of years of evolution that have passed the most rigorous quality-control tests of natural selection.

However, as the Church and the KGB give way to Google and Facebook, humanism loses its practical advantages. For we are now at the confluence of two scientific tidal waves. On the one hand, biologists are deciphering the mysteries of the human body and, in particular, of the brain and of human feelings. At the same time, computer scientists are giving us unprecedented data-processing power. When you put the two together, you get external systems that can monitor and understand my feelings much better than I can.

Google won’t have to be perfect. It won’t have to be correct all the time. It will just have to be better on average than me. And that is not so difficult, because most people don’t know themselves very well, and most people often make terrible mistakes in the most important decisions of their lives.

If you don’t like this, and you want to stay beyond the reach of the algorithms, there is probably just one piece of advice to give you, the oldest in the book: know thyself. In the end, it’s a simple empirical question. As long as you have greater insight and self-knowledge than the algorithms, your choices will still be superior and you will keep at least some authority in your hands. If the algorithms nevertheless seem poised to take over, it is mainly because most human beings hardly know themselves at all.

– excerpts and image from ‘Big data, Google and the end of free will’, Yuval Noah Harari, Financial Times, 26 August 2016

‘Are Kids Who Reject Social Media Missing Out?’ – WSJ

[Illustration Carmen Segovia; WSJ]

…Such abstention from social media places him in a small minority in his peer group. According to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, 92% of American teenagers (ages 13-17) go online daily, including 24% who say they are on their devices “almost constantly.” Seventy-one percent use Facebook, half are on Instagram, and 41% are Snapchat users. And nearly three-quarters of teens use more than one social-networking site. A typical teen, according to Pew, has 145 Facebook friends and 150 Instagram followers.
But what if a teen doesn’t want to live in that networked world? In a culture where prosocial behavior happens increasingly online, it can seem antisocial to refuse to participate. Are kids who reject social media missing out?

Jacqueline Nesi, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies teens and social media, says, “Based on survey data from our lab as well as national statistics, I would estimate that only between 5% and 15% of teens abstain from social-media use.”

In a study published this spring in the journal Psychological Science, researchers created an Instagram-like program and then used fMRI scans to measure teens’ reactions to the photos that received more or fewer likes. What they discovered was a process of “quantifiable social endorsement,” with teens using what received likes on social media “to learn how to navigate their social world.” But such cues can be adaptive or maladaptive. The researchers found that adolescents “were more likely to like a photo—even one portraying risky behaviors, such as smoking marijuana or drinking alcohol—if that photo had received more likes from peers.”
Such peer pressure is hardly new. What is new, with social media, is the speed with which peers can comment on each other’s lives, as well as the assumption that they should. “There’s a kind of bipolar effect that social media has on girls her age,” Marnie Kenney said of her daughter. “They’re constantly being judged. Their self-worth is constantly measured by other people’s response to every single thing they put online.”

– excerpt from ‘Teens Who Say No to Social Media’, Christine Rosen, WSJ, 25 Aug 2016

How To Future-Proof Our Lives: Author Yuval Harari’s Guide To Surviving The Modern Age

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  • Don’t let technology take over: Look at the day-to-day decisions you make, the amount of time you spend online or on your phone, and the way technology is merging with and controlling your life. Use technology for your purposes and do not allow yourself to be used by it
  • Bring tech to the table: Industrial agriculture damages the environment and causes suffering to billions of animals each year. Instead of giving up dairy or meat, there may be a technological solution — meat cells grown in cultures, 3D-printed meat and dairy products. Research in this area is vital
  • Don’t get left behind: The technological revolution is like the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. China missed out then and took 150 years to catch up. Those who lead the way with biotechnology and computer science today will be the rulers of tomorrow
  • Don’t panic, think big: Remain curious and open about the future — the minute you become emotional, scared or pessimistic about it, you lose some of the ability to see what’s happening and what the possibilities are
  • Know yourself: Real happiness is not feeling pleasant sensations all the time or searching for meaning (there is none). It is knowing the truth about yourself, so that you are no longer enslaved by illusions, myths and your body’s biochemical cravings
  • Think globally: We live in a global community and need our visions for the future to match this. Too much of our education is narrow and parochial
  • You can’t fake zen: Meditation and mindfulness have become very trendy, but we must be extremely careful how we use these techniques. The point is to stop the rat race, not to use meditation to run even faster

– from ‘The seer of Silicon Valley: Yuval Noah Harari’, Josh Glancy, The Sunday Times, 21 Aug 2016

UK Bar Owner Blocks Mobile Signals To His Customers – “I want people to socialize with the people they are with, rather than the people they are not with.”

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A landlord in Sussex [UK] has built a “Faraday cage” around his bar to block mobile phone signals, in an attempt to encourage face-to-face conversation.
Steve Tyler put silver foil in the walls and copper wire mesh in the ceiling of the Gin Tub in Hove.
He said he was tired of people coming in and not socialising with each other or with anyone else in the building.
“I’ve seen it progressively get worse and worse and I thought, ‘I want to stop this,'” Mr Tyler told BBC Sussex.
“I want people to socialise with the people they are with, rather than the people they are not with.
“I took the bold decision by not blocking the signal with a jammer but doing as best as I could with a Faraday cage and make people talk to each other, and to be honest it has worked very well.
“I had quite a lot of copper mesh and thought, ‘I could put this in the ceiling.’
“I was mucking about with it to see if it would block a signal, and it does when you put your phone in it.”
Mr Tyler plans to have a mobile phone area outside similar to a smoking area.

– from ‘Hove bar blocks mobile phone signal to be more social’, BBC, 2 Aug 2016