March 19, 2017

Weapons of Math Destruction

Filed under: Business,Coaching,Consumer Trends,Marketing,Sustainability,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 8:50 pm
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There is much chatter about corporate social responsibility but little deep thinking about more complex moral concepts. This is what struck me as I read a polemical book about the troubling implications of living in a world ‘controlled’ by algorithms – Weapons of Mass Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil.

The author’s Big Message is to highlight how the clever models that sit behind how decisions to evaluate teachers, job candidates, prospective customers for insurance, consumers etc, are not as objectively fair as we might think, often capturing the biases of their creators, as well as more importantly creating negative feedback loops reinforcing social divides. Poor people living in bad neighbourhoods pay more for insurance as they are higher risk; thanks to accurate targeting, they can be more easily identified to be sold payday (or equivalent high cost/poor value) loans.

Whilst this is indeed troubling, my overall response to the book was to feel glad that I don’t live in the US and that, in the UK (I think!), there are more checks and balances in place to stop the level of exploitation seen across the Atlantic occurring.

However, after reading the book, I did start to notice other examples of concerns being raised about the moral implications of business approaches.

First example: an article widely circulated among the senior management at a major international marketing powerhouse. This article raises far more worrying concepts – how search engines are effectively being ‘gamed’ by organisations who wish to propagate ideas that would normally be dismissed out of hand in a liberal democracy. The journalist tried seeing what happens when you start typing in “are muslims…”, and seeing what comes up in Google Instant (though I must confess, I didn’t get anything as bad), she observes, “I feel like I’ve fallen down a wormhole, entered some parallel universe where black is white, and good is bad.”

Second example: an interesting piece in a recent edition of 1843. A writer for the magazine went to California to ‘meet the scientists who make apps addictive’. In a way, this article provides a much-needed human face to the O’Neill book. It seems that the clever people behind all the clever new apps and algorithms are not actually evil. They are described as ‘hipsters from San Francisco – all nice people’.

However, some of them have realised that what they are unleashing on the world may not be so straightforwardly ‘good’ after all. The founding father of ‘behaviour design’, B.J. Fogg, is quoted as saying, “I look at some of my former students and I wonder if they’re really trying to make the world better, or just make money. What I always wanted to do was un-enslave people from technology.” Let’s see what some of these students have been up to:

  • One of Fogg’s alumni, Nir Eyal, went on to write a successful book, aimed at tech entrepreneurs, called “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products”.
  • Another, Tristan Harris, resigned after working for Google for a year in order to pursue research into the ethics of the digital economy. “I wanted to know what responsibility comes with the ability to influence the psychology of a billion people? What’s the Hippocratic oath?” Whilst Harris was convinced to stay on temporarily as design ethicist and product philosopher, he soon realised that, although his colleagues were listening politely, they would never take his message seriously without pressure from the outside. He left Google for good to become a writer and advocate, on a mission to wake the world up to how digital technology is diminishing the human capacity for making free choices.

My final example is a film, but it succeeded in make me think the most as it captured my imagination and brought to life the moral dilemmas at play most powerfully. Eye In The Sky explores what happens when a drone is to be used to launch a bomb into a crowded street in Kenya in order to kill a wanted terrorist. Clever algorithms make use of Big Data to calculate what is the likelihood that a small girl selling bread on this street might be killed too by this bomb. For the minsters approving the mission, it is only acceptable for the bomb to be launched if the likelihood is below 50%. Initially calculations suggest the risk is over 50% (that’s what the model says), but in the film we can see how human actors can override and manipulate models. It is clear that ultimately humans need to be ready to make difficult decisions – and live with the consequences.


April 22, 2016

Quantified me

Google searches 2015

The above image gives you an insight in the minds of a nation – what are the people of the UK uncertain about and interested in? (I have picked the graphs that intrigued me – there were obviously lots on sport and celebrities!)

I can also get an insight into myself, all without having to join the club of those armed with some kind of wearable device. There are lots of organisations with whom I interact doing all the data collection already. Let’s see what I can uncover…

Firstly, back to Google. It is possible to obtain information about your account, including how you use the panoply of different Google applications. As I have the function which tracks location switched off and don’t really use YouTube, the main aspect of my use I can analyse is standard web searching. As the below screen grab shows, I have notched up an impressive number of searches over the past 10 years (though actually, as I have no point of comparison, I can’t tell if this above or below the ‘average’).

Google search  history

I am not so impressed with the fact that Wikipedia comes up highest in the list of my top search clicks. Perhaps I can at least be proud of the fact that it isn’t facebook and that the other sites listed are more respectable!

Next – money. I recently received an annual statement from my credit card provider, which included some charts breaking down my expenditure each month and by category.

Credit card statement

Well, this is superficially interesting, but rather frustrating once I start looking into the data further. What was going on that meant I spent so much in June? A large amount of spending in November makes sense as there are birthdays and Christmas presents to buy. And the breakdown by category is also rather limited. As I shop online for groceries, that explains why a large slice is for supermarkets, but what about the big area of ‘other spend’? Hmm, not sure I shall bother to look at this in the future again.

Third and finally, Amazon. We all are only too aware of the fact that Amazon is keeping track of what we buy as recommendations pop up based on our purchasing history. But, I wondered, is there is more on my quantified self beyond this? Not really. All I could uncovered was the ability to look through my previous orders, admittedly going back more than 10 years.

Amazon orders 2005

This did reveal the extent to which I have increased my shopping through Amazon. In 2005, I placed a mere three orders! A decade later, I made 101 purchases and this year is set to be even more of a bumper harvest for Amazon. By March, I had already made 55 orders. Hope Jeff Bezos is rubbing his hands!

July 1, 2012

Project Rebrief – or rehearsing the past

Filed under: Business,Demographics,Futures,Marketing — by xrematon @ 7:11 pm

I’ve just had an entertaining half hour watching through the four films that are part of a recent initiative from Google: it’s Project Re: brief. This involved reviewing four seminal advertising films from a generation ago and thinking about they could be re-imagined for today, using all the resources Google has in its treasure chest of tools.

A couple of observations from stuck me:

  • Someone in the films talks about ‘concepting’. Can you really turn concept into a verb?
  • The films are a great opportunity for some office voyeurism. I am always fascinated to see what other work places are like, especially somewhere as iconic as Google. Sadly, there is nothing extraordinary on show: they still present to clients using big white screens and something that looks suspiciously like Powerpoint, and though they show off whizzy animations on iPads, pencils and notebooks are reassuringly still present for taking notes during meetings.
  • I don’t want to go into whether the new ads are better or not. The biggest take-out for me from seeing the ads is that the process reinforces the importance of proper planning. By this I mean, making sure there is a big, clear, strong idea which acts as the driving force across creative development media planning and execution.
  • This isn’t just playing for fun – the teams actually go through with their ideas. They show them to the client and then shoot the films, build the apps, install the smart vending machines etc. That’s pretty cool.
  • When I still worked properly (by this I mean working into an office), I used to wonder what happened to people in advertising and marketing when they entered their fifth decade as there seemed to be very few around with that level of life experience. However, this film is, unintentionally, a way of showing that older generations can still take part and contribute in this field. The individuals who were originally involved are now in their 70s (the ads were produced forty to five years ago).
  • I am interested in futures thinking, having worked on many projects in this area, but I find the idea of going ‘back-to-the-future’ very intriguing. And it does make me wonder what whether there could an extension or sequel to the project in which the teams had to think about what the ads would be doing in ten years’ time?

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