opinion

Don’t be like Wylie

“Who do I trust?” Christopher Wylie repeats the question so slowly that you can hear his brain cracking. After some stuttering, he admits: “I don’t want to say that I don’t trust anyone. Let’s say I go through life with a healthy dose of scepticism”. All clear: Wylie does not trust anyone.

Christopher Wylie is a Canadian data scientist who worked at Cambridge Analytica until the end of 2014. In 2018, he appeared in the British newspaper The Guardian to whistleblow about the practices behind the massive amounts of data his former employee denied having bought from Facebook. His story hit like a bomb.

In The Guardian, Wylie confirms what journalist Mattathias Schwartz claimed in The Intercept_ earlier that year: Facebook owns your data and does as it pleases (including what it is not allowed to do according to the conditions). For one million dollars, Cambridge Analytica obtained data from about thirty to fifty million Facebook users. All data, including private messages. Based on this, the American company developed ways to influence voters. Actually, that’s not prohibited. Lying is. That’s why Wylie rang the bell.

With the recent hassle around social media platforms, most notably the launch of Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, Wylie’s story is relevant to recall.

In the 2017 Tegenlicht documentary Kwestie van Vertrouwen (Matter of Trust), Polish psychologist Michał Kosiński, assistant professor at Stanford, explains how Cambridge Analytica works. Kosiński knows. In his college years, he worked at Cambridge University on the foundations of the system used by the American company. In Tegenlicht, Kosiński stresses the positive aspects of his work. Data profiles can give us a better understanding of human behaviour, and that can be used to change the world for the better.

For the time being, his work has influenced the election of Donald Trump as the American president and the choice for Brexit. It’s still unclear what the effect on the results of both events have been. As professor Digital Media at Queensland University of Technology Axel Bruns clearly points out in his excellent paper, It’s Not The Technology, Stupid, metaphors like the ‘echo chamber’ and ‘filter bubbles’ aren’t suitable to explain what happened.

Besides that, there is another question to raise. Is Kosiński’s starting point correct: do data and systems to process them provide a better insight into human behaviour and the world around us?

My answer? No.

The idea of describing​​ people based on massive amounts of quantitative data is not new. In the beautiful documentary Century of the Self (2002), British journalist and filmmaker Adam Curtis explores the influence of Sigmund Freud’s psychology on marketing and how consumer profiles were created in the West after the Second World War based on all kinds of psychological assumptions converted into hard, measurable data.

That data was used to sell products. Over the past fifty years, we have increasingly come to believe in the persona that companies have created with our data. We have become our persona. Philosopher Miriam Rasch wrote an excellent book about that: Frictie. For now only available in Dutch, but I hope soon in English.

So how Cambridge Analytica persuades people to make certain choices is not new, but a platform like Facebook does make it easier to mine even larger amounts of data.

Am I my Facebook profile? No. My searches on Google? No. Products I buy from Amazon? No. Nor am I the persona that represents al those data. Does the profile make my life easier? Oh, sure. But simplicity and convenience come at a price. Slowly, let’s use a bit of Marshall McLuhan, parts of my life are being amputated without me even realizing it.

The choices that designers make play an essential role in this. Wylie doesn’t trust anyone because he doesn’t trust himself. Without any scruples, he has programmed algorithms that target people at their weakest spots. Designers at Facebook have created algorithms that seduce people to share everything about themselves and to lose themselves in trivialities instead of keeping the overview.

There is another way.

As a designer, you can stop creating classical personas, the traditional way to reduce large groups of potential users to a few behaviours, and you can think about the immense long-term consequences of the small design decisions you make. This gives you back control over your own work and allows you to make your own choices about what to design and whatnot.

Don’t be like Wylie, be a self-conscious designer.

Continue reading and watching
Cambridge Analytica website: CAMBRIDGEANALYTICA.ORG.
The Guardian’s “The Cambridge Analytica Files” is here: THEGUARDIAN.COM/NEWS/SERIES/CAMBRIDGE-ANALYTICA-FILES (including the interview with Christopher Wylie).
Mattathias Schwartz (2017). “Facebook Failed to Protect 30 Million Users from having their data Harvested by Trump Campaign Affiliate”. The Intercept_, March 30 2017. (LINK)
Jos de Putter (2017). “Kwestie van Vertrouwen”. VPRO Tegenlicht, September 10, 2017. (LINK)
Adam Curtis (2002). Century of the Self. documentary, BBC. (LINK)
Axel Bruns (2019). ‘It’s Not the Technology, Stupid: How the ‘Echo Chamber’ and ‘Filter Bubble’ Metaphors Have Failed Us’. Paper presented at the IAMCR 2019 conference Madrid, 7-11 July. (LINK)
Miriam Rasch (2020). Frictie: Ethiek in Tijden van Dataïsme. Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij. (LINK)