We mindf***ed ourselves

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Above: The book cover of Christopher Wylie’s new book.

BitDepth#1224 for November 21, 2019

“The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking…the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.” – Albert Einstein

The dark heart of humanity is a powerful force.

The list of benevolent inventions, created to help the human race that have been weaponised is long, so it’s a bit surprising that it’s taken us this long to realise that the wonders of the Internet, built on the open sharing of information might inevitably result in abuse.

Christopher Wylie new book MindF**k is another strategic tool, one that’s been deployed to recast the notorious whistleblower as a naive innocent who found his desire to advance his research into data driven sociological analysis perverted and abused by powerful political interests and greedy businessmen.

That’s about as believable as his rather high flown narratives purporting to tell the true story of the conniving plans that built the reputation of Cambridge Analytica and its predecessor company Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL).

In Wylie’s book, all his youthful techy friends are misled heroes and the old people are the villains, even when they are painted as charming rogues, as he does with Steve Bannon.

But even in such a polarised retelling, there are curiosities in the book.

Despite SCL and Cambridge Analytica (CA) boasting of mounting more than a hundred data-driven election strategies, the only countries named are the UK, America and Trinidad and Tobago.

He makes colourful accusations of corruption about African nations, but doesn’t name them. Is it that he only has digital receipts for the projects in the countries he’s named?

And despite his pandering dismissal of his adventures in TT, as he recounts being offered raw census data, his narratives about this country have the flavour of tales being shared about a beloved but daft puppy.

The simple fact is that the UNC was, over the last two decades, dramatically more clever and advanced in its thinking about the role of data in the electoral process than the PNM ever seemed to be.

In the run into the 1995 election, there were widespread reports of UNC troops on the ground gathering information on Palm Pilots, then a cutting edge handheld technology device.

During the 2010 election campaign the People’s Partnership coalition made extensive use of memes and geotargeted online advertising, swamping browsers with swaths of yellow and the face of political leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

The response to Wylie’s book locally by TT officialdom has been, to put it charitably, embarrassing.

Nothing in the book wasn’t news last year when the CA story broke, so pegging probes and investigations on year-old news because there’s a new book to wave around stinks of opportunistic politics when it happens weeks before the local government elections.

A bank could not ask for the information we volunteer to sign up for social media services without raising eyebrows.

The National Security Minister’s worry about datamining that might have occurred in 2010, following on his own publicly avowed distaste for social media and its impact on society, suggests that he may not entirely understand how digital harvesting of personal information works in the 21st century.

Both Digicel and TSTT have issued statements denying involvement and pledging their companies’ commitment to only respond to legal requests by government.

SCL, the company that was absorbed into Cambridge Analytica well after the incidents related in the book about its activities in Trinidad, did not need access to information from phone companies. There’s enough information willingly and publicly disclosed on social media networks by TT citizens on Facebook to build workable profiles through the sketchy data gathering techniques SCL was using in 2010.

To clarify for our elected leadership, data is being harvested on online networks all the time. We give it up for the convenience of modern services and because the line between using a product and being the product has been so cleverly blurred that the idea of sharing intimate, targetable details about our lives is now commonplace and accepted.

A bank could not ask for the information we volunteer to sign up for social media services without raising eyebrows. A bank could not view and monitor our search histories, personal opinions, chat sessions and emails for its own advantage but Facebook and Google do so every minute of every day.

Information shared freely on these services fuels a range of advertising and promotional purposes because that’s how social media works and always has.

Information shared freely on these services fuels a range of advertising and promotional purposes because that’s how social media works and always has.

According to NapoleonCat, a service that monitors globally social media use, there are 857,000 Facebook users in Trinidad and Tobago in October 2019. Instagram and Messenger, platforms also owned by Facebook, clock in at 400,500 users and 476,000 users locally.

Most of those users voice their opinions and preference freely and it wouldn’t take a hack to scrape all that data and analyse it, just a well-programmed digital bot.

This fulminating, inclusive of plans to interview Wylie, has the stink of emailgate about it, accusations that play to the party faithful while having little substance in provable reality or prosecutable practicality.

It’s also stupid. And a new generation of voters knows it.

We are going to remain stupid about technology until political minds bend themselves to science and understand that there are things that computing, particularly computing applied to big data can do that walking the street hoping to impress and sticking leaflets to lamposts cannot.