World Futures: Polling, Voting, Surveying, Choosing, Influencing & Statistics – Part Four

Los Alamos World Futures Institute
In part three of this series we looked at polling and voting generally about political contests and elections. We can look at the results and ignore them, get excited, and even get angry. Consider the 2016 presidential race and election. For the most part we as individuals are insulated from them. The polls and the voting are about someone else. But what if the data gathered are about us? What if data are being used to target us, our way of thinking, our choices, and our way of life?
When my wife and I owned and operated an art and jewelry store we got to know our customers to better respond to their wants and needs. This is retail business, the customer comes first, and you have to satisfy his or her needs. If we pushed a specific product, really pushed it, we might lose customers. So, it behooved us to use discretion and target the right customers. And, for the most part, we were dependent on whoever entered the door. Our advertising was to a broad audience through media such as the newspaper – going to everyone and gambling on who would see it and respond.
In 1995, we put our store on the World Wide Web and “bet” that we would be found by people wanting what we sold. We selected items to sell that were relatively “mass” produced and identifiable by brand name. That way a web visitor could search for the product using a “search engine” that surveyed “all” of the documents stored on the web. A search engine web page was displayed with links to pages that might be of interest, presented in groups of 10 or so. To make it work as a business, your link had to appear on the first or second page of the listings. Essentially, you were advertising and paying for it through search engine optimization.
Flash forward to today. Do a search for “prescription.” You probably do it on Google, an automatic selection on my smart phone. You get 455 million results. The first entry is the definition. But if you scroll down the page you quickly find an advertisement, a link to a page about prescription discounts. Go further and you find more links to pages on selling you things. Search for “prescriptions” and the advertising grows. Plus, when I begin to do a search, the search engine makes suggestions based on my past activity. This is like following our customers in our art and jewelry store except that the search engine is tracking billions of customers and selling advertising to other businesses. Remember that the search engine has to make money, yet to you, as a customer, it is “free.”
Now jump to social media. Facebook has to make money, yet it is offering you, the individual, a “free” service. To do so it gathers information about you, sorts you with others, and sells targeted advertising to other commercial venues. Actually, this is not much different than newspapers, magazines, entertainment media, and other venues of consumable information. But these “traditional” forms of media use the results of surveying to define their advertising markets, perhaps location, age brackets, and so forth. Assume you own a dress shop in Smalltown USA. Would you advertise in the New York Times?
Now jump again to social media. The platform knows who people are, where they live, their lifestyles, their political perspectives, and more depending on the content of their registration, text, photographs, friend lists, likes, and on and on. Would you pay a social media company to send targeted ads for your dress shop to the right age group of females in Smalltown, USA? Obviously, you might say no or not even respond depending on price and your perspective. But if the social media company cannot sell advertising, how can it sustain itself and make a profit? The social media company has to poll you about you, survey you about you, know your choices and preferences, and influence you with proper advertising.
Let us assume there is only one social media platform in the world. Yes, it is an extreme assumption, but it is not unlike drawing a political spectrum with two extremes at the end. In the social media realm a single entity would own all of the information about all of the users in the world. Privacy in the domain of information disappears. Now assume that the social media platform is owned by the government. Foolish you say and I would agree, at least not in our lifetimes. But it does raise a question – where do you draw the line, red or some other color? How do you determine the rights to information access and who controls them? In the search engine case, the search engine does the controlling as a private entity. But how big is the private entity and how much influencing is allowed through selection of data or perhaps propaganda?
In our world today data, information, and knowledge are growing exponentially. This makes us more and more dependent on media tools for access, sorting, filtering and judging. But to do their jobs, the media needs to know more and more about us. This is probably acceptable as long as the media respects and protects our privacy. How do we ensure this happens? A long time ago, if a mailing list was stolen it might make the news but the list was relatively small. Today the “mailing list” measures in the billions. We do not want the “government” taking over control or is social media and the web the “government” of the future?
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