Brexit, Literature, Politics

Does Dostoevsky’s ‘Notes from the Underground’ predict a Facebook exodus over Big Data?

Mark Zuckerberg is dabbling in the dark arts of Big Data and Dostoevsky reckons we’re not going to like it

A recent article on Big Data terrified me. It tells the story of Michal Kosinski who used Big Data and psychometrics to predict, with staggering accuracy, your political affiliation, sexuality, personality, alcohol use, and much more just by analysing your Facebook ‘likes’. Then ‘Cambridge Analytica’ came along. During the Brexit and Trump campaign they used psychological profiling to target their slogans at the people most susceptible to their rhetoric. They’ve essentially built formulas that can predict and manipulate human behaviour.

This would have blown Dostoevsky’s mind. He was fiercely critical of such attempts to rationalise human behaviour and issued a warning about the consequences of such endeavours:

“Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over the other organisms.” Pic: Wikimedia Commons

‘If there really is some day discovered a formula for all our desires and caprices — that is, an explanation of what they depend upon, by what laws they arise, how they develop, what they are aiming at in one case and in another and so on, that is a real mathematical formula — then, most likely, man will at once cease to feel desire, indeed, he will be certain to. For who would want to choose by rule?’

In other words, once humans become aware of such a formula, the urge to exercise free-will would cause the collapse of such rational decision-making. The difference with Facebook and their dark associates lurking behind the scenes is that these formulas are, aside from a few leaks, kept hidden. In 2014 Facebook conducted a ‘news feed experiment’ to see if it could control people’s mood. This year an internal report was leaked which appears to advise advertisers how best to target vulnerable teenagers when they feel ‘worthless’ and ‘insecure’. Facebook are constantly increasing efforts to appear friendly, bubbly and philanthropic: personalised videos to champion friendships, more creative ways to celebrate birthdays and even a morning colloquial greeting updating you on the upcoming weather. But behind this facade, Facebook is increasingly becoming the bad guy, building trust before selling us out to the highest bidder.who targets me

One application called ‘Who Targets Me?’ could help speed up a Dostoyevsky-esque digital rebellion. The extension, currently available with Google Crome, is seeking to make people more aware of who may be trying to influence you through the adverts that appear on your screen. It’s hoped that with the upcoming UK General Election, attempts to influence voters will become more transparent. Will people begin to behave differently once these formulas are exposed?

Dostoevsky’s argument builds to a crescendo when he states ‘for the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!’ If he is right, the more people are aware of these formulas at work, the more people will begin to rebel. At what point might people get sick of being played?Will we carry on as normal? Or could this continuation of data abuse signal the start of the end for Facebook?

Now read my other post about how Dostoevsky helps explain Brexit and Trump!

Pic Credit: Pixabay

Brexit, Literature, Politics

How Dostoevsky helps make sense of the Brexit & Trump backlash

The Russian literary heavyweight’s message to the Left: the smug championing of rational thought simply won’t work

In 1863 Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky wrote a book called ‘What Is To Be Done?’ It advocates rational egoism – a theory outlining how a utopian society could be created if only people made rational decisions about how to advance and converge their individual happiness with that of the local community’s. It went on to influence Lenin’s socialist vision of Russia.

notes wikipedia
“What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.”   Pic – Wikipedia

This broadly describes a liberal outlook of society and institutionalised political correctness is a by-product of this; express yourself freely but be sensitive to the wider community in your choice of language. Whilst this may seem like a sensible idea to many – including comedian Stewart Lee – Dostoevsky would have anticipated the backlash. In Notes from the Underground, whilst he doesn’t explicitly mention political correctness, he mocks Chernyshevsky vision of a socialist utopia, stating that ‘choice is utterly and stubbornly opposed to reason’ and that Chernyshevsky’s smug championing of reason will only lead to rebellion. It’s human nature. After all, ‘what is a man without desires, without free will and without choice[?]’

A rebellion against political correctness and the mainstream media is often cited as a core force behind the rise of Trump and Brexit. Under the finger-wagging of political correctness people feel like they are being attacked and unjustifiably labelled as racist, homophobic or sexist in the process. The winning campaigns tapped into this narrative with devastating efficiency. Trump has repeatedly attacked political correctness and the mainstream media, we apparently live in a ‘post-truth’ world, whilst Michael Gove’s statement that Britons are ‘sick of experts’ caught great traction for ‘Leave’ supporters before the EU referendum. People became sick of being told what to think and say, invigorating the growing wave of populism.

Notes from the Underground deals with a huge range of issues not covered by this article, but when pundits have struggled to find an adequate, rational answer for why people voted Leave, it’s hard not to see sense in what Dostoevsky says about human nature. Economists and business leaders said it was a bad idea. University graduates said it was a bad idea. The Prime Minister said it was a bad idea. But this all just contributed to the rebellion: ‘one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests…however wild it may be…what man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.’

Feature pic: Flickr