Facing Mediocracy

In Robot Futures I write about the concept of how computer algorithms can observe our behavior, then experiment on a massive scale with customized signals to each of us, to see just how we respond to each stimulus and, over time, to build a model with enough felicity to approximately ‘remote-control’ individuals. I called this form of manipulation mediocracy- control by media rather than by people. Sounds far-fetched? The news machine is helping us all see the thin edge of the mediocracy wedge arriving thanks to Facebook, Cornell and UCSF. Many know the details of the story now- Facebook did human subject research by manipulating the emotional content of users’ newsfeeds, then studying how this affected the emotional content of each user’s posts.

The most interesting analysis of this case that I have read so far is by Adrienne LaFrance of The Atlantic. Her story zeroes in on the ethical question of Review Board regulation. We do IRB-approved research all the time, and what I find interesting about this case is the concept that an IRB could have approved this particular study without the obvious informed consent it ought to require.  Generally, any situation in which one wishes to manipulate a person’s inputs requires definitively telling them that you are doing a study, explaining that they can opt out, and then asking their permission, with opt-out.  LaFrance’s story cuts to this issue, and to the role, or non-role, of three institutions in thinking through the ethics of a technological manipulation.

The ability of corporations to collect massive data, cut through that data using machine learning techniques, and present manipulations back to us will only grow over the years. As we happen to stumble upon evidence of such manipulation, expect the ethical case to become only more complex.


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