We all dread the idea of our bank account or online account being hacked. It creates panic and anxiety, and it upsets us because someone with ill intent took control over an aspect of our life and we find that very disturbing.
An even more terrifying possibility is that, not only can some account of ours be hacked, but that humans themselves are hackable. Research shows that this is indeed possible. We are all hackable. All that is needed is data about us. Every time we go online, enormous amounts of data are collected about us, about where we live, what we do, where we go, what we search for online, and what we buy. This data is used to understand our likes and dislikes, our wants and needs, and what kind of people we hang out with. We know that this is true, since we all experience it daily. We have hardly finished searching online for something, when the first advert or suggestion relating to our search appears in our inbox. Experts believe that it is not farfetched to assume that external algorithms will soon ‘hack humanity’ so effectively that they will know us far better than we know ourselves.
So we are more hackable than we would like to believe. To illustrate this, Yuval Harari, in his book, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”, refers to a recent study that has indicated that already today the Facebook algorithm is a better judge of human personalities and dispositions than even people’s friends, parents and spouses. The study was conducted on 86,220 volunteers who have a Facebook account and who completed a personality questionnaire. The Facebook algorithm predicted the volunteers’ answers based on monitoring their Facebook Likes. The more Likes, the more accurate the predictions. The algorithm’s predictions were compared with those of work colleagues, friends, family members and spouses. Amazingly, the algorithm needed a set of only ten Likes to outperform the predictions of work colleagues. It needed seventy Likes to outperform friends, 150 Likes to outperform family members, and 300 Likes to outperform spouses. In other words, Harari says, if you happen to have clicked 300 Likes on your Facebook account, the Facebook algorithm can predict your opinions and desires better than your husband or wife can!
In volatile times like this, it is important to keep this in mind. The world seems to be upside down and we are all trying to make sense of what is happening at the moment. How we do that is by searching the internet using certain keywords. In the meantime, in the background, the algorithms are hard at work picking up on those keywords, and before long they will offer us a host of opinions. But, and here is the catch, those opinions of so-called ‘experts’ and others come mostly from people who, for the most part, think like we do: and right in this way, an echo chamber is created. The algorithms will feed us with information and connect us to sites and people that think like us, which therefore actually just reinforces our views. The algorithm thus confirms or supports our personal beliefs or values. As long as we hide in the safe space of our own echo chambers, we don’t entertain or don’t tolerate a different view; all of this ultimately contributes to more social and political polarization.
How do we escape from this echo chamber? Firstly, we need to make sure that we are not caught up in one. If we insulate ourselves from other opinions and only have our views repeated back to us, it is a tell-tale sign that we are caught up in an echo chamber. But even more importantly, we need to identify our authentic voice and follow its instructions, regardless of the difficulties. The time has come to be brave, to break free from the group and tribal thinking, and to listen to the inner messages coming to us, even if they scare us.
Technological progress has its very own agenda. It doesn’t want to listen to our inner voices. It wants to control them. However, we need to be smart and not allow that. By being clear on who we are, by finding our authentic self, and by embracing this, it makes us `unhackable’. Crowds and groups are so easily hackable, as we can see at the moment. We should not relinquish our authority to crowd wisdom and external algorithms. Until recently power meant having access to data, but, as Harari reminds us, today having power means knowing what to ignore.
Let’s not be ignorant, but at the same time, let’s ignore what is to be ignored. That makes us not only more powerful but also more calm and more centred, so that we can hear the soft and wise whisper of our inner voice even better.