In 2017, behavioural economist Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his groundbreaking work on how people make irrational choices and how their behaviour can be modified to help them make better decisions. Cass Sunstein and Thaler’s book, Nudge, opens with an illustrative example of a woman who experiments with the layout of food in cafeterias to help kids make healthy food choices — for example, placing carrots rather than French fries at eye level.
Thaler’s work was instrumental in exploring how public policy can be leveraged to manipulate human behaviour for better outcomes. Governments around the world formed “nudge units” to prod their citizens towards making better decisions — from quitting cigarettes to reducing energy consumption. However, detractors, fearing the encroachment of the state into their personal lives, criticised the idea of nudges as a policy instrument for promoting government paternalism, infantilising people and diminishing autonomy.
Thaler’s applications of nudging seem well-intentioned — notwithstanding the psychological manipulation aspect — when compared to the greater threat we now confront: the nefarious and covert behaviour modification we are constantly subject to as we interact with digital technology.
At some point, most of us have wondered whether the microphones on our devices are spying on us. For example, shortly after discussing a particular clothing store with a friend, an advertisement for that very store has popped up on your Facebook newsfeed.
This is not so much proof that our devices are recording our conversations, but rather that Big Tech has collected such vast and comprehensive data on us — the websites we visit, what we like and comment on, our physical locations, how long we spent inside a particular store or restaurant, what we search for on Google, the apps we use, the list is endless — that they are now able to predict our thoughts and behaviour with terrifying accuracy.
In the last few years, Facebook and Google have become notorious for this practice. As their business model centres on advertising revenue, they collect user data and use it to target personalised advertisements. There have been countless protests, investigations, lawsuits, and US Senate hearings highlighting these issues, but little real progress has been made on protecting user privacy and autonomy.
So what is the endgame for the technology sector, and why is the data it has collected so precious? Harvard Business School’s Shoshana Zuboff quotes a senior software engineer as saying, “The real power is that now you can modify real-time actions in the real world.” The goal is not just to use data to find patterns and predict behaviour, but ultimately to modify behaviour. This behaviour modification can be to increase advertising revenue by getting more clicks, drive more sales with targeted advertisements, sway public opinion on policy issues or manipulate electoral outcomes.
Facebook demonstrated its ability to control users for the first time back in 2014. In a secret experiment, Facebook altered newsfeeds to observe users’ responses to various stimuli — a process it referred to as “emotional contagion”. The results showed that the social media giant was effectively able to manipulate the thoughts and behaviours of its users. This underscored the immense power technology platforms hold, and their ability to conduct psychological and social experiments at any time without their users knowing.
All of us who interact with digital technologies have virtual identities or psychographic profiles that shadow us online. These are created from the vast amounts of data collected on us. This includes what we click on, what we search on Google, our GPS coordinates, what we eat, buy, read and share, our demographic data, and so on. Based on these profiles, personalised information, advertisements and behavioural nudges are targeted towards us.
Many lay users assume these issues do not affect them — “I have nothing to hide” or “I am not important enough for data to be collected on me”. The excitement around new technology, the research that goes into making digital interfaces more and more addictive, and the secrecy of the technology sector have lulled users into complacency.
While the idea of nudges as a public policy tool created fears of the nanny state, the power of the technology sector to modify user behaviour is far more frightening in its scale and efficacy. Technology platforms have greater reach than any national government — and their singular motive is profit maximisation.
By arrangement with Dawn...