If you’ve been following our blog, you read last week the story about how Big Data was used by China to obtain a very efficient level of civil obedience and control without actually forcing the citizens the traditional way, but by cleverly using people’s own desires and nature. Before reading this piece, you should definitely give part 1 a read, since this is a sequel article:
|How search engines and big data are used to control you – Part 1: China|
The star player in the West’s scheme of Big Data usage is the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is created in various parts of the brain and is vital in all sorts of cognitive functions, but we will focus on several main areas of action: motivation, seeking and reward. Dopamine causes you to want, desire, seek out, and search, while increasing your general level of arousal and your goal-oriented behavior. This is where the issue of instant gratification comes in. The west specializes in designing ways of experiencing pleasure and fulfillment without delay or patience. These instant-reward ‘cheats’ provide the user a spike in dopamine without much effort or discipline, and as a result, breaks an ancient mold of human behavior that has existed for millions of years. Simply put, the attainability of satisfaction and happiness were never as immediate as they are today.
While China has Orwellian flavors, the west digs Huxley.
The Way of the West – a Brave New World
Banks, credit card companies, insurance agencies and health care services have been using their own form of shared personal scores for a while. While buying too many beers or getting a speeding ticket doesn’t influence those scores, many that got blacklisted know full well how restricted you can become even in a ‘free’ Democracy.
In the West, it is a capitalist-centered free market. Big Data is being collected with financial motives, but it ultimately has the same result of keeping the masses under some umbrella of control.
To understand how Big Data is used in the West, we need to first acknowledge that there are cultural differences that dictate a different approach more suitable for the standards the people were raised in.
First of all, Western society has been known to start wars and riots whenever any dictator tries to rear their head too openly and at least on the surface is generally anxious of 1984 scenarios. So to keep the masses under control, companies needed to adopt different means, be much more subtle, and give the impression of freedom, choice and diversity. They needed something that relied on pleasure – something closer to Brave New World’s SOMA (link contains light spoilers)
We all have an inner susceptibility to instant reward mechanisms, so all that was needed was to successfully tap into that. The key was finding a way to use the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine, adapt it to seemingly harmless everyday applications, and let nature do the rest. And the best vessel for that was the holy smartphone.
Next we need to consider the way individualism and the concept of freedom have been packaged in the West. Each and every person is seen as a separate entity and a unique world in themselves that was meant to shine. Being special is reinforced and rewarded. We are free agents in this game of life, and freedom of speech and thought have the highest values. We have a right to privacy, and the only way it can be taken from us rightfully is with consent, which we happily give in this case by agreeing to the terms of service. Power is given by the people, it is not taken, and every vote counts.
In the West, the cultural undercurrent is that ‘if we have enough faith and determination, we can build ourselves from scratch.’ Then, you can make enough money to buy those products that define you – the brands that you’re attached to that make you who you think you are. Consume, and you will be happy for a moment. All of this serves as one of the pillars of Western Big Data usage. You might be tempted to think that being in a democracy and a capitalistic system saved you from a China-like fate, but the opposite is true: it is just a matter of adjusting the methods of Big Data use to the rules of the playing field.
A story is being narrated for us: one of a surface war for user data by the 4 major opposing forces: Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple
However, this rivalry only goes so far, since there are frequent data exchanges and collaborations. The 4 will no doubt join forces even more at some point and everything collected will likely be merged one way or the other (arranged and controlled neatly by an advanced AI system).
Big Data is collected by virtually any device that is connected to the internet, and the four go out of their way to invest in as many IOT startup companies as they can get their hands on. And if all that data is joined together and analyzed, a highly accurate psychological and physical profile can be constructed on each of us.
As far as we know, Google currently excels the most at collecting user data – not only do they have the most popular mobile OS, but also the most popular browser, and most importantly, the biggest search engine on the planet. We are what we search for. It’s more honest than the image we project on social networks. Facebook might know the surface, but Google knows us deeper than that.
To give you a scope of just how much the big 4 might know about us, consider this famous case where Target knew a girl was pregnant even before her parents did. They did it with limited data mining technology relevant to 2012’s standards, and Target is no Google or Amazon.
|If you want to learn just how scary-accurate Google can be, how they collect the data, and their sometimes-shady approach on collecting that user data, check out our previous article on the subject:
SERP tracking in a post-privacy world: How Google knows your location virtually at all timesYou will also expand your local rank-tracking skills and knowledge by getting the hang of this crucial dynamic between Google and its users.
And now the fun begins. With accurate psychological profiles, they can begin grabbing your attention by any means necessary, stream digital SOMA to your mind effectively, and tweak your behavior once you are tapped in.
Hijacking our brain’s reward systems
The easiest way to get high on media and keep the public entranced is with instant gratification. Social media likes, mobile games designed around a Skinner Box model, porn, constant content novelty in the form of YouTube video suggestions and infinite Facebook scrolling. It’s very easy to determine what content we want to see to keep us glued to the screens.
Buying things also engages our brain’s reward systems and brings us comfort (even if temporarily) and instant gratification. And, in many cases, what we buy signals part of our identity to the world and how much we are worth. This is where targeted ads and marketing, the main engine that drives this machine, comes into play. It seems we always get the right ads that suit our needs and desires – ones even our friends and family are not aware of. But the big 4 know us better, maybe even better than we know ourselves. We as SEO experts and marketing specialists rely on this system to work as efficiently as possible.
Personalized search results
We have become completely dependent on Google by now. We have outsourced basic human functions such as memory and knowledge to Google. Today’s personalization is mostly helpful. Your search results are mostly tailored according to your geolocation, device type (desktop or mobile), mobile OS and language. One of the biggest concerns of the future of personalization is that eventually, you’ll be seeing search results that only fit your way of thought and user profile. This gives you less diversity, no ideas that might challenge your views, causing you to solidify your beliefs and views on reality. A possible example of that could be the search results for the popular search query “Does God Exist?” Someone who has a religious user profile might see search results that only confirm his belief in a higher power, while someone who has an agnostic or atheist user profile might only see search results that empower his views. Another possible use of personalization is driving the public opinion and pushing some kind of narrative through search results. We have already seen the rise of fake news reports and how easily they were promoted through search engines and social media – consider how that might affect the world if it were engineered and intentional… which leads us to the next point:
Divide and conquer
Everyone wants to belong to some group, as social connection is part of our identity. The more separate groups that are created, the easier it’ll be to separate everyone and reduce the chance of unified front against an unwanted policy. Either by design or as a natural consequence, we are currently going in this direction very strongly. Since everything is basically tailored to our personal preferences, people end up in limited cliques based on shared ideas and beliefs, and the exposure to opposing views is becoming more and more rare. By solidifying cliques where everyone is shouting their opinion in a sort of echo chamber, it only ends up creating feedback loops of data and reinforcing those beliefs and opinions.
Encouraging escapism through fear
Media and news is still a major source of content on the internet. Our unique, personalized content is also laced with juicy fears of the scary world that lurks outside our safe zone. The problems outside are so great and terrible that one person can’t make a change. The government has it handled, so don’t worry. Enjoy the time you have and the privilege to enjoy it since not everyone is as fortunate as you (as often seen on news content). Outside the boundaries of comfort, there’s danger, so stay inside, purchase those treats, and play mobile games.
What matters is the number of likes we get. Every algorithm is designed to entice us with likes and bind our self image to mass public approval. Each like spikes our dopamine and adrenaline and makes us feel good. The trouble is that it breaks a healthy balance that used to exist. When the self becomes overly empowered, the concern for the greater good diminishes.
Social networks have become masters at manipulating our reward circuitry with it. They now employ full-time psychiatrists and brain research experts to perfect their methods. For example, they discovered that giving you all of your likes in one big dose is less efficient in keeping you hooked. Instead, you will receive them distributed in smaller chunks throughout the day, so you will check your phone as frequently as you can.
The content we get is ultimately based on our psychological profiles, identities and innate preferences, but it also changes us. We cannot be separated from the machine anymore.
The technological means by which our brains are rewarded easily and instantly are so effective, they have essentially become our SOMA. Just click or scroll and get a dose.
In truth, this concept is nothing new, only the technology is. The approach the West favors is actually much older than Brave New World, and the first political criticism that we know of is by Roman poet Juvenal, who coined the phrase “bread and circuses“. That is, to generate public approval of leadership not by excellence in public service or public policy, but by diversion, distraction or by catering to the most immediate and base requirements of the people. Keep the masses addicted and hypnotized, and they will not have the volition to revolt. After all, why would anyone lose their comfort and free reward chemicals, their SOMA?
By the end of the day the quality of life is rising. If we manage to save our planet from global warming and other cosmic dangers somehow, it’s very likely that the East and West will just fall into a sweet euphoric utopia, each tailored to their social structure. Serenity, comfort and pleasure. But are you willing to pay the price? And what about those that don’t want to pay it and instead will choose to stand with grocery bags in the face of tanks?
The truth is, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and it pales in comparison to what may grow from this eventually. The real scary part of Big Data mining is not even controlling the masses. A black swan is coming, but that is for another story.
If you want to use the devil in the story to spread awareness, then please share this article on social media, and hopefully novelty seeking and dopamine spikes will be used for a good read.
We leave you with this video:
If you liked this topic, check out our Extra Value series of topics. We talk about the broader picture of search engines and the Internet environment and how rank tracking is manifested in almost every aspect.
Whether you like it or not, if you own a website or a business you will need to know how to properly play this game, which will only be getting more advanced and even more centered on entertainment, escapism and consumerism. Want to live a comfy life and make money doing SEO and SEM? At the very least, you need to know how to track your search engine progress correctly. There are many nuances here, and clearly this is not a simple rank type deal anymore.
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