‘Databases manipulate our identity’ – NEMO Kennislink

When modern science emerged in the seventeenth century, we developed the steam engine. Suddenly, medicine began to see the body in a mechanical way: our heart is a pump that can be broken and replaced. At the time, it was a radically new way of looking at ourselves. Today, the computer metaphor is popular. We see the brain as a hard disk where information is stored or as a processor that performs calculations.

We have always used technology to express ourselves, according to Jos de Mul, professor of philosophical anthropology at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. He investigates the impact of technologies on our self-understanding, with a focus now on databases and smart algorithms. Your medical data, who your friends are, what things you buy, your holiday destinations; it’s all in digital bits stored in databases. Algorithms dig into that mountain of data from you and your fellow human beings, in search of patterns and new knowledge.

In a culture in which the computer is the most important instrument, the entire world is transformed into a database, as De Mul writes in his latest book Database Delirium. Should we be concerned? “First, let’s try to understand what’s happening, then we can look at the dangerous and pleasant sides.”

What happens to our self-understanding when our lives become a database?

“You can think in terms of the media we use. A medium has a certain structure that registers itself in our self-experience. A story about yourself in a diary has a beginning, middle and end, which gives us a narrative identity. Who you are, takes on the character of a story. On new media such as Facebook, the structure is not chronological. You can search the database along all kinds of lines and recombine pieces of stories. In a database you have constant changeability, ‘digital recombinability’ as I call it. You can organize photos and messages how and when you want. The manipulability is very great. This new structure is typical of how our identity is now experienced. Think of the selfie culture. You manipulate and recombine images to look as beautiful as possible and to present life as a continuous party.”

The invention of the steam engine marked the beginning of the industrial revolution. We have always used technology to express ourselves, according to Jos de Mul.

Image bank Historical Center Overijssel via CC0

Not only do we create a profile of ourselves with data. Companies like Facebook do the same.

“Facebook collects all our behavior. Not with the intention of making our lives more pleasant, but to make money. If you look online at a Prada bag or a plane trip to Spain, the algorithm will send you countless advertisements. The big tech companies determine which links appear on your page. That selection is not necessarily linked to your person or interest, but to marketability. You are actually unpaid in the service of these types of companies. By giving them your data, you contribute to their revenue model.”

Are information and communication technologies going to change us as humans?

“I think so. People and ICT are increasingly integrating. Seen from the perspective of evolution, certain tendencies are visible. As the world becomes more complex, people have a greater need for mutual coordination. Early humans developed spoken language to better communicate while hunting. Once as farmers in villages, writing was created to transfer knowledge over greater distances. Then came the printing press. And now there’s the Internet, something completely new. You can see a book as an external memory. Someone invents something, writes it down and it is accessible to everyone via the library. On a computer we store not only the products of our thinking, but also the thinking processes themselves. Algorithms are in fact our outsourcing of those thought processes. By outsourcing thought processes, a hive mind to arise, a swarming spirit. Our data is the food for that swarming spirit, which becomes, as it were, a cognitive entity for many people. In a way, our intelligence becomes something collective.”

Is this a prediction for the future or are you already seeing signs of such a swarming ghost?

“This is already happening. When you buy a book through Amazon, your purchase goes into the database and is compared to what others bought. You will then receive a recommendation: ‘others who bought this book also liked these books’. This is a new level of knowledge that no one individually possesses. It is a knowledge that has arisen from combined data. In 2012, Amazon received a patent for a new algorithm, so-called ‘anticipatory shipping’, to predict which book you are going to buy and send it in advance. It’s not that far yet, but Amazon now sells about 40 percent of its goods based on these kinds of recommendations. Amazon doesn’t know what your next purchase will be on an individual level yet, but we’re moving in that direction.”

What are the nightmares of a future where algorithms run our lives?

“Suppose we can predict on the basis of data about purchasing behavior and pub visits that there is a high chance that someone will neglect their children. Based on that information, you can take preventive action. In a sense, this is already happening at consultation bureaus. If you are a problem family, you already get extra monitoring. There’s something creepy about it. Until now, our punishment system was based on our past: you misbehave and you get punished. What if you’re going to be punished for something you haven’t done yet, but might do? It reminds me of the movie Minority Report, in which three oracles predict murder. They do what computers do today.”

Where is the power of algorithms going?

“Algorithms have power over us and it will increase. The precise operation of algorithms often goes beyond the programmers’ caps – for example when using neural networks that create their own rules as they go along. Now the question is how much autonomy we should allocate to algorithms, and whether we can even control them at all. In the debate, on the one hand, you have the technological determinists, who say that technology takes its course and we cannot change it. On the other side are the social constructivists who say that people can always intervene. I think people have influence, but we can’t always predict the future.”

Medicines come with a package insert. Do digital products also need a package leaflet that lists the side effects?

What can control look like?

“In the EU we have legislation that states that algorithms must be explainable, otherwise you cannot apply them. And if you hand over your data, for example to a doctor, you need to know what happens with it. You do not want your data to be sold to insurers. At the Ministry of the Interior I argued for a ‘digital leaflet’ for digital products, just like a leaflet for medicines. What is the effect and what are the side effects? As a government you can at least say ‘if you enter this data, we will do these things with it and not these things’. And not in a 90-page document full of incomprehensible jargon that no one reads.”

Can we cope with the changes in society without ever smarter ICT?

“The major problems in the world are becoming more complex, partly due to climate change. As a result, we are increasingly dependent on ingenious technology, there is a certain compulsion behind it. If we cannot contain the effects of climate change and population growth ourselves, we risk surrendering to technologies that we can no longer fathom and that will outrun us. We have to try to avoid that.”


Source: Kennislink by www.nemokennislink.nl.

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