We no longer know if we’re seeing the same information or what anybody else is seeing

From Zeynep Tufekci: We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads | TED.com

As a public and as citizens, we no longer know if we’re seeing the same information or what anybody else is seeing, and without a common basis of information, little by little, public debate is becoming impossible, and we’re just at the beginning stages of this.

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What if the system that we do not understand was picking up that it’s easier to sell Vegas tickets to people who are bipolar and about to enter the manic phase. Such people tend to become overspenders, compulsive gamblers. They could do this, and you’d have no clue that’s what they were picking up on. I gave this example to a bunch of computer scientists once and afterwards, one of them came up to me. He was troubled and he said, “That’s why I couldn’t publish it.” I was like, “Couldn’t publish what?” He had tried to see whether you can indeed figure out the onset of mania from social media posts before clinical symptoms, and it had worked, and it had worked very well, and he had no idea how it worked or what it was picking up on.

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Now, don’t get me wrong, we use digital platforms because they provide us with great value. I use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family around the world. I’ve written about how crucial social media is for social movements. I have studied how these technologies can be used to circumvent censorship around the world. But it’s not that the people who run, you know, Facebook or Google are maliciously and deliberately trying to make the country or the world more polarized and encourage extremism. I read the many well-intentioned statements that these people put out. But it’s not the intent or the statements people in technology make that matter, it’s the structures and business models they’re building. And that’s the core of the problem. Either Facebook is a giant con of half a trillion dollars and ads don’t work on the site, it doesn’t work as a persuasion architecture, or its power of influence is of great concern. It’s either one or the other. It’s similar for Google, too.

Longer than usual (23 min) TED talk, but worth it.

I, too, believe that there’s no malicious intent behind the increasingly capable AI we see these days. Quite the opposite, I believe that most people working at Google or Facebook are there to make a positive impact, to change the world for the better. The problem is, on top of the business model, the fact that a lot of people, even the most brilliant ones, don’t take the time to ponder the long-term consequences of the things they are building in the way they are building them today.