Jessica Hackett, Head of Marketing, The Urban List
In the early and mid-20th century, the world was in a state of crisis. Uncertainty, mistrust, and fear laid path to the rise of fascism, despotic governance, and eventual world war, and the population was plunged into a time of unknown through government-controlled censorship.
Fast forward to the year 2000. Advancements in technology, communications, and the widespread institutionalisation of free press had instilled clarity and trust. Combined with the post-WWII realisation that education, shared-knowledge, and understanding were essential in order for us to live harmoniously with each other led to a world that– whilst far from being perfect– existed in a time of truth.
So now it’s 2017, and what does the world look like? The 21st century thus far has been shaped and defined by technology more so than any other single factor. From the ways in which we communicate, socialise, and do business to the ways in which we experience everyday activities like exercising, shopping, eating or reading the news– the rise of technology, or the ‘digital revolution’, has changed everything.
Undoubtedly we’ve acknowledged this; the power of technology to drive humanity forward into a more connected and unified world is profound and untapped. However with every upside, there is inevitably a potential downside, and the consequences cannot be underestimated or under-prepared for.
Marketing and media, once considered a predominantly ‘creative’ field, has now transformed into a data-driven science. In 2017, there are 3.7 billion people using the internet (50 percent of the world’s total population), social network giant Facebook has over one billion users, it’s estimated that over two billion people own smartphones, and every day collectively, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data. And whilst ‘Big Data’ is not a new concept, according to IBM 90 percent of the recorded data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. Big data has taken on an entirely new life form.
Through technology, there are now countless ways of taking advantage of people's cognitive biases to persuade and influence them to think a certain thing
So much of the information we consume today, although we may feel we’ve chosen it freely and independently, is determined by the design choices of people at platforms such as Apple, Google, and Facebook, and the decisions made by IT professionals, marketers, and publishers.
These platforms, companies, and individuals now have the power to craft everything they do in extraordinarily intentional, targeted and individualised ways using persuasive and habit-forming techniques to build more engaging products, advertising, and content.
Persuasion itself is not a new concept, yet never before in history has such a small number of people influenced how billions of people think every day by explicitly using persuasive techniques to influence.
Through technology, there are now countless ways of taking advantage of people's cognitive biases to persuade and influence them to think a certain thing or take a certain action. This is also being done in ways that leave users completely unawares, rendering them unknowing participants by simply providing an email address, completing a form, clicking a button, tagging their friends or sharing a piece of content.
Further to this, individuals are able to curate their online experiences to an unparalleled degree and have become publishers and influencers unto themselves. Whether knowingly or not, through curating our own news feeds, subscribing to commentary we align our values with or being susceptible to personalised online experiences, we are essentially blinding ourselves to any realities outside of our own, as well as persuading others in our personal spheres of influence.
When corporate entities are able to, at mass scale, present different versions of ‘the truth’ to different people based on what will drive the best commercial results, and individuals are systematically shutting off from any information that doesn’t reinforce their own beliefs, values and opinions, it creates a scenario that breeds misunderstanding and intolerance. If we are all presented only with versions of reality that align with our own personal perceptions, how can we even begin to understand that of others?
In 2017, it’s no longer dictatorial governments that are censoring our access to free press and unbiased information–it’s us. As a society, we’ve regressed into the unknown– we’ve moved “beyond truth”, into our own cultivated realities.
As technology decision makers, how do we ensure we steer people’s perceptions, beliefs, and behavioural choices–in essence, how do we shape the entirety of people’s realities–in an ethical and fair way, that ensures a healthier future for everyone?
Humanity has learnt the hard way that a lack of knowledge and understanding breeds intolerance, hate, and fear. The power of technology is unquestionable, yet when such a small number of people influence how a billion people think every day, how we manage the ethics of this scenario is a question that needs to be addressed. In a big way and right now.