Saturday, August 23, 2014

Know thyself #hashtag

I came across this article about Google Now and the power of digital assistants and predictive algorithms. The theme is about how big data is used to find patterns in our life that we neglect to see. It asks an interesting question: does Google know us better than we know ourselves? The idea of self-deception is presented and it reminded me of a thought from C. S. Lewis. When writing in the Problem of Pain, he writes:
We imply, and often believe, that habitual vices are exceptional single acts, and make the opposite mistake about our virtues — like the bad tennis player who calls his normal form his 'bad days' and mistakes his rare successes for his normal. I do not think it is our fault that we cannot tell the real truths about ourselves.
While the article focuses mostly on a positive self-deception, like the player Lewis describes, I am reminded of the continuum of possibly misguided self evaluations. In the light of Robin Williams departure, there has been a renewed public focus on depression. The other day I came across a text-based 'game' (think "Choose-your-own adventure" book) called Depression Quest. The game is rather emotionally challenging. It does remind me that for every tennis player who over-estimates his greatness there is someone struggling with a crippling sense of failure and self-loathing. That makes me wonder about the effects of predictive algorithms on the depressed mind. I wonder if they have the effect of sometimes deflating our opinions of ourselves or whether they merely pull people back to reality, which would actually be an improvement for the depressed individual.

Changing topics and building off the idea of analytics, I wonder which data collector knows me best.
Firstly, there is my bank. I use my debit card more than cash, so the result is that the bank knows when and where I spend my money. I do a lot of shopping at Meijer (A million reasons in a single store), so that does not give them insight into what products I am buying. However, they could probably tell how often I have left my house just by looking at how often I go to the gas station.
Secondly, there is Amazon. Not only does Amazon know what I actually spend money on, they have an idea about those aspirational items that I read about. For example, they know how many times I've looked at the specs of the Onkyo TX-NR626. They could probably use that information to make some predictions (At some point in the future, I hope to be living somewhere so that I can make use of a dual-zone audio receiver).
Thirdly, there is Goliath or rather Google. Not only do they know what I search for, but they have my emails. That's a big deal since I am not one for making phone calls. If you want to know what Google thinks about you, try signing into your Google account and going to Google's Ad preferences to look at the 'interests' category.
Fourthly, there is the Facebook. For a while, I would say that Facebook knew me best. However, it's been about ten months since I signed on to Facebook and over a year since I regularly visited the site. I wonder if robo-Zuckerberg, or whatever you want to call the Facebook algorithms, ever figured out why I stopped checking in with them.

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