Not So Personal Data

by Geli Juani

February 2021

Last night I read on Twitter that Spotify, a music streaming app, has patented a technology that could harvest granular data on a person’s current emotional state, all for refining its musical recommendations. Fast-forward years from now, I imagine myself walking, feeling down perhaps, when suddenly my phone would beep notifying me of a morose song to match my mood, “Alone again, naturally” by Gilbert O’Sullivan. Or maybe, Spotify would be intelligent enough to recommend an upbeat song to brighten my mood, care to listen to a bubbly K-Pop song this time?

Social media tools and other online applications are getting better at analyzing their users by the minute. What is astonishing to me is that they upgrade their capabilities surreptitiously. I don’t really notice the small, day-to-day changes happening to these platforms; only when I finally have the time to stop and wonder, I muse just how far technology has improved and creeped into our lives. Pretty soon a delivery app will be able to guess that I crave for a greasy cheeseburger and fries on certain days when I have deadlines at work.

The thing is, these apps and search engine tools make daily transactions and learning easier – but with the caveat that these apps must first gain access to the users’ data. It gets harder to give them up, what with the ease of transactions that they offer. I use them to connect with my peers and family. I use them to pay for my bills, and remind me to pay my bills on time. Twitter has given me information on new journal articles, on news reports from all over the world, on musings of revered professors from all over the globe, on new music, movies and books, and even lets me discover paintings from centuries ago. Recently I began to audit a Harvard applied development economics class, thanks to a kind professor who posted about it on Twitter. YouTube videos have been teaching my dad how to repair broken appliances – and thank you very much for he enjoys the videos so, a quarantine pastime. Suddenly there’s just too much information at our fingertips and the prized ability nowadays is the skill to sift all these information and disinformation for clarity of thinking.

But the worrying thing is, these internet-powered tools invade our privacy. My data are not so personal to me anymore. They have algorithms that capture my preferences or what they think are my preferences, and they offer me products based on what they know about me. This is the implicit deal with the devil, us giving away our data for convenience, or worse, for their addictive features; the problems connected to the latter were depicted in the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma. The question that we have to ask ourselves is, is this a fair bargain? Shouldn’t we at least get more out of our data if our data are the product that these platforms sell to firms? And shouldn’t these platforms become more explicit on how they handle our data?

There is also the question of what exactly do they know about us. How am I profiled by these AI tools? In economics, there is a problem called “adverse selection” when an insurance company, due to a lack of information, gets high-risk customers who are more prone to sickness or accidents than low-risk ones. I was told that now the problem is “inverse selection” wherein the companies know more about me through my online data than what I actually know about myself – the risk is transferred to me.

These platforms are influencing choices and beliefs, and I wonder how they are addling mine. Their unintended effects around the world are bothering me. In politics, for example, we have begun seeing the downsides of social media. It seems to me that people are more polarized than ever, that sane level-headed discussions are rarer; and instead, what we see are online tirades against each other, giving rise to radicalism in some quarters of the world (read: Neo-Nazis). These platforms can radicalize beliefs and create tribes and echo chambers. Are these divisions amplified because of the algorithms, directing a person to see one side of the story? These platforms may be exploiting biases, a good way to push users down the social media rabbit hole.

The hungry learning worm in me is happy that I have access to a wealth of information. But I am also taking back my agency. I hope to dip into these platforms only when I have the time and when I consciously want to give them time. I have managed to remove my FB application on my phone; I still have my account but I don’t visit it as much as before, only when I consciously want to. I don’t open my Instagram that much to begin with. I have Goodreads but I rarely open and update it, just when I crave for new books. Twitter and YouTube are two useful platforms for me, but again only when I consciously want to open them. I turned off all notifications, dialing down the noise. I hope to sustain these decisions. In a world where platforms are vying for our attention, taking back our full attention to our actions seems an empowering move.


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