First, we had #FacebookExperiment, where Facebook took it upon itself, for a week or so in January 2012, to make people happy or sad by deliberately manipulating the kind of content they saw. Now we have #DarpaExperiment:
Several of the DoD-funded projects went further than simple observation, instead engaging directly with social media users and analysing their responses.
One of multiple studies looking into how to spread messages on the networks, titled “Who Will Retweet This? Automatically Identifying and Engaging Strangers on Twitter to Spread Information” did just this.
The researchers explained: “Since everyone is potentially an influencer on social media and is capable of spreading information, our work aims to identify and engage the right people at the right time on social media to help propagate information when needed.”
Of course, this is no creepier in its essence than Facebook showing me a picture of a hearse and a tagline which runs along the following lines: “Are you 53 next birthday? Want to leave something to your nearest and dearest?” (This, by the way, happened to me a couple of days ago. I wonder, now, whether it was actually part of the #DarpaExperiment – a warning of some sort or other!) (Well. I don’t really … but the thought is engaging.)
What really cheeses me off about all these stories circulating around how institutions, corporations and governments are treating end-users as laboratory garbage to be summarily dealt with and experimented on is that people like myself, brought up to believe in good science, in the scientific method and in progress through robust and rigorous experimentation, are allowing ourselves to become 21st century Luddites: through a natural preoccupation about privacy abuse, we’re reacting with closed minds, knee-jerk responses and an impulsive resistance to anything which involves going out on a limb.
What I’m really worried about, what I really hate, is that Facebook, Darpa and God knows who else are destroying our belief in any science at all – as they promote their activities and interests through examples of very bad practice.
As a kid, I was always fascinated by new ideas, by stuff which wasn’t quite right but seemed worthy of exploration. At one point in my childhood, I devoured Isaac Asimov sci-fi; read things like “Robinson Crusoe” and “Lord of the Flies”; was exposed to the injustices of “Julius Caesar”; discussed and debated all manner of moral and political quandaries.
And now all the terrible things they’re doing with our personal lives have turned me into one of those people whose very first – and very last – instincts are to declaim self-righteously: “NO! NO! NO, NO, NO!”
So where did my open-minded, generously boyish nature go to? How did my excited, excitable, wide-rangingly young mind vanish from the amplifying experiences of new thought? What have these behemoths of permanent analysis, control and manipulation done to the environments which once nurtured me in the direction of new ideas so positively and constructively?
And does anyone else feel the same has also happened to them?
Really, I don’t dislike Facebook, Darpa or any of the rest for trying to make me change my mind on stuff – nor for wanting to influence my society’s future direction and development. Really, it matters not a jot to me. Mostly, I think our ideas remain pretty steady – oh yes, elections may be won or lost on the cusp of a stupid public statement or policy slip-of-the-tongue, but then do elections actually ever change anything anyhow?
What does upset me, however, is how they’ve buggered up our practice in weaving thoughtful trains of thought, and basing civilisation’s growth on proper and valid argument, debate and discussion.
I don’t want to be a 21st century Luddite. And you’re making me more so, every hour that goes by.
So for that, I really do object in the strongest terms.
Can you understand why?