Database of Intentions : God Google

I enrolled for Coursera MOOC Understanding Media by Understanding Google. Unfortunately I will not be able to complete it due to sudden surge in my other work and personal commitments. But I am thankful for this course for introducing me to wonderful pieces of writing on Google and the immense “Orwellian” (cliched term I know) power it exercises over us. I have earlier written about it here, here, here, and here. Most of those pieces are inspired by two books The Filter Bubble and The Googlization of Everything which I highly recommend. Former is a real eye opening book in terms of amount of knowledge Google has about us and probably knows more about us than we would even admit to ourselves.

Another book that I came across is the dated The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business andTransformed Our Culture. I haven’t yet read it completely but it talked about a powerful concept “Database of Intentions”. As much as I study Google and more importantly social media trends, this should have been blindly obvious to me but it wasn’t. In The Filter Bubble it is covered that how much Google knows about individually, this book talks about how much Google knows about us collectively.

One analytic site reports, 88% of world used Google as their primary search engine.

This gives Google immense insight about what the world (at least the world that is online or has access to internet) is thinking. Are they searching for any particular news, interested in buying any particular brand of clothing or accessories, researching any particular listed financial instrument such currencies, stocks, bonds or commodities (sorry I am a financial guy so this is of my particular interest), checking symptoms to see what diseases have we contracted etc.

Google does release its annual zeitgest report

“Zeitgeist” means “the spirit of the times,” and this spirit can be seen through the aggregation of millions of search queries Google receives every day. The annual Zeitgeist report reveals what captured the world’s attention in the past year—our passions, interests and defining moments as seen through search.

but it is released periodically. Based on this there was this hoopla in 2010 about Pakistan No. 1 Nation in Sexy Web Searches? Call it Pornistan | Fox News. Pakistanis claim to be amongst the righteous people of world but Google search shows their hypocrisy i.e., in the privacy of their rooms, they are largest consumers of porn. Later Google raised doubts on the accuracy of the report but fact remains that Google is sitting on this huge pile of information. Its their PR strategy that they chose to share it with us. They can very chose not to share this information with us.

The real power resides in having real time information about us collectively. A hypothetical example: Google notices a sudden increase in search for special kind of symptoms in a particular locality. Whenever we feel unusual pain or symptoms, our first instinct is to search online and not approach the doctor. If its related to a contagious disease, Google will know days before anybody else that a contagious disease is spreading in that area.

If people start searching for Gold as an investment say in India or similar such country (with significant purchasing power and penchant for gold buying), Google may know that demand for Gold is about to increase. It can either sell this information or use it to make more money for itself at the expense of ordinary investors.

Above are just hypothetical example and come with lot of caveats for example assumes that people are net-savvy, affluent, and research such diseases/terms on internet. Seeing that gold prices are low, an Indian may not research and just go and buy it from a local shop and this whole sentiment-to-action process may not even register on Google. But as people become more affluent, their access to internet increases, the power due to the knowledge that Google has about us will increase.

I am not saying it is easy. People tried earlier to tap into this. Derwent Capital’s Twitter Hedge Fund tried just this:

London-based hedge fund Derwent Capital Markets said it had successfully marketed a new venture to a series of high-net worth clients that makes investment choices using information gathered from over 100 million daily tweets.

Simply put: the fund mines the Twitter-verse to gauge market sentiment, and that information—which the firm futuristically brands as “The 4th Dimension” is used to drive the portfolio’s holdings.

The company still exists and has renamed itself Cayman Atlantic. The fund was shutdown

not because its analysis of Twitter wasn’t working. During the one month that the $40 million Derwent Capital Markets fund was operation, it reportedly returned 1.86 percent, beating the overall market as well as the average hedge fund. The fund’s founder says that its analysis worked so well that one of the fund’s principal investors suggested making a mass-market product out of it, so as to reach a larger market instead of the handful able to invest in a hedge fund.

It might not have worked for the company but the potential is there. One reason could be that other hedge funds would also have developed such data mining software. And since markets are efficient, probably reduced any advantage the Twitter fund had to zero.

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My point is that with the amount of data rather real-time data Google holds about us, it has too much information about us. It may know more about a police-state’s nation than the government of that nation. A lot has been written about recent Arab Springs and earlier revolutions and how social media has been helpful in organizing them. However, in social media we are public or at least broadcasting our intentions. When we discreetly search for anything on Google, after God only two people know about it: us and Google. That is a pretty God like power to have.

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Internet and elusive search for truth

Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves. – Eric Hoffer

It was believed that with the advent and ubiquity of internet and the huge information resources that internet puts at everyone’s disposal, creation of propaganda will become hard as people will easily seek out truths and will easily separate fact from fiction. However, recent events have shown that is hardly the case. Moreover, the arrival of social media such as Facebook and Twitter actually adds to the problem.

This was most notable in Pakistan during the Elections 2013 season. Columns were fabricated under the names of well known columnists and political analysts and shared via email, Facebook and Twitter. In pre-Internet times such fake news stories or columns circulated as faded photocopies. Very few people had access to news archives to be able to verify themselves whether such news item or column was ever written.

Now newspapers have their archives online and all one has to do is to visit the newspaper website and verify for oneself if such a column or news item had ever appeared on its pages. If recent experience has taught us anything, no one makes the effort of doing so. Whereas in earlier cases, spreading such false information required us to expend money and energy by photocopying and then delivering such papers, now it can be just done with a simple click of send or share button.

However, Pakistani nation eventually caught up to it as shown by election results and the supporters of political party that were faking such news items and columns lost sympathy of these journalists.

In case of Pakistan, the propaganda remained affected or deceived the Pakistani population. Probably because it was being done by a few die hard media savvy supporters of a particular political party. However, recent coup and subsequent events have shown that if there is a state machinery and intelligentsia behind a propaganda campaign, one can almost fool the whole world.

The campaign against the incumbent president started by “Tamarod” (arabic for Rebelion) by claiming that they have collected 22 million signatures nationwide from people demanding that the president step down. Whereas doubts were raised about authenticity of the signatures or even the numbers, they weren’t taken seriously. June 30, 2013 was announced as a day of protest against the president. A large number of people did come out and it was reported by local media and subsequently picked up by international media that more than 30 million Egyptians are protesting against the government which was also claimed as largest number of people protesting together in history of the world. This was repeated so much by the protestors themselves and the local channels sympathetic to them that they started believing it themselves.

From BBC

Pro-coup claims of 30M people is “gross exaggeration” and “impossible”

It has been claimed that Egyptians staged the biggest uprising in history in the last few weeks. It has been claimed that 30 million people took to the streets.

“I think that’s a gross exaggeration,” says Middle East correspondent Wyre Davies, from Cairo. “I think nationwide there were millions of people this time protesting against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, but nothing like the 30 or 40 million people some people quoted. That’s 45% of the population – that’s impossible; there are too many young people in Egypt for the maths to work.”

So where has the figure of 30 million protesters come from? It’s difficult to find a source for it, or for any of the other estimates for that matter.

“What we saw last week was a military coup – there’s no two ways about it,” he says. “And therefore the only justification for that logically is that this was a popularly-backed military coup. So it’s in the interests of the people who supported the overthrow of the president to say that they had these millions of people supporting them.”

The BBC website above does not allow for comments. When the absurdity of such huge numbers protesting was pointed out on other websites or blog posts, the authors were branded as stooges of Muslim Brotherhood or USA who do not want to see Egyptians progress. Moreover, unless someone goes to the original source of the estimate and checks its credibility, it is very hard to verify the numbers.

Finally, award winning journalist Max Blumenthal does a deep dive and proves it the numbers were fabricated and social media was used to full affect to forward this.

People, power, or propaganda? Unraveling the Egyptian opposition

Among the first major Egyptian public figures to marvel at the historic size of the June 30 demonstrations was the billionaire tycoon Naguib Sawiris. On June 30, Sawiris informed his nearly one million Twitter followers that the BBC had just reported, “The number of people protesting today is the largest number in a political event in the history of mankind.” Sawiris exhorted the protesters: “Keep impressing…Egypt.”

Two days after Sawiris’ remarkable statement, BBC Arabic’s lead anchor, Nour-Eddine Zorgui, responded to a query about it on Twitter by stating, “seen nothing to this effect, beware, only report on this from Egypt itself.” Sawiris seemed to have fabricated the riveting BBC dispatch from whole cloth.

On June 30, one of the most recognisable faces of Egypt’s revolutionary socialist youth movement, Gigi Ibrahim, echoed the remarkable claim, declaring on Twitter, “I think this might be the largest protest in terms of numbers in history and definitely in Egypt ever!” Over 100 Twitter users retweeted Ibrahim, while a BBC dispatch reporting that only “tens of thousands of people [had] massed in Tahrir Square” flew below the radar.

Some Egyptian opponents to Morsi appear to have fabricated Western media reports to validate the crowd estimates. Jihan Mansour, a presenter for Dream TV, a private Egyptian network owned by the longtime Mubarak business associate Ahmad Bahgat, announced, “CNN says 33 million people were in the streets today. BBC says the biggest gathering in history.”

There is no record of CNN or BBC reporting any such figure. But that did not stop a former Egyptian army general, Sameh Seif Elyazal, from declaring during a live CNN broadcast on July 3, just as the military seized power from Morsi, “This is not a military coup at all. It is the will of the Egyptians who are supported by the army. We haven’t seen in the last — even in modern history, any country in the world driving 33 million people in the street for four days asking the president for an early presidential election.” CNN hosts Jake Tapper and Christian Amanpour did not question Elyazal’s claim, or demand supporting evidence.

Three days later, Quartet’s Middle East special envoy Tony Blair hyped a drastically different, but equally curious, crowd estimate. In an editorial for the Observer (reprinted by the Guardian), Blair stated, “Seventeen million people on the street is not the same as an election. But it is an awesome manifestation of people power.” The former UK Prime Minister concluded that if a protest of a proportionate size occurred in his country, “the government wouldn’t survive either.”

Like the massive crowd estimates, Tamarod’s signature counts were impossible to independently verify. Increasingly it appeared that the numbers were products of a clever public relations campaign, with the Egyptian army and its political supporters relying on the international press and Western diplomats to amplify their Mighty Wurlitzer.

As stated above, it is important to go to the original source to verify numbers, facts etc. Though CNN and BBC carried themselves quite respectively above, however, in these days of Breaking News and ratings game, even they can fall victim to such propaganda.

Osama bin Laden corpse photo is fake

An image apparently showing a dead Osama bin Laden broadcast on Pakistani television and picked up by British newspaper websites is a fake.

The bloodied image of a man with matted hair and a blank, half-opened eye has been circulating on the internet for the past two years. It was used on the front pages of the Mail, Times, Telegraph, Sun and Mirror websites, though swiftly removed after the fake was exposed on Twitter.

In addition, our searching habits and Google ensure that we continue to believe in the propaganda. In his book, Filter Bubble, Eli Parser makes a very convincing case that Google is our gatekeeper to the information. As such, we now see the world through Google. If Google chooses only to show us results skewed towards one viewpoint, it will be swaying our opinion on that issue towards that side. It is a very powerful power that Google exercises over us and we freely allow it to exercise it.

Moreover, in order to improve its search results, Google continuously strives to personalize the search results for us. As such, when we are logged in at our personal or office computer, through cookies Google has an idea of our tastes, viewpoints, location etc and throws up the results that it thinks we want to see. By showing us those results that it considers we are looking for, it plays a crucial role in reinforcing our beliefs about certain topics by not showing opposite opinions or showing them in further down the results list.

Google’s filtering systems, for example, rely heavily on Web history and what you click on (click signals) to infer what you like and dislike…. it’s that behavior that determines what content you see in Google News, what ads Google displays—what determines, in other words, Google’s theory of you.

…According to the New Republic’s Jon Chait, the answer lies with the media: “Partisans are more likely to consume news sources that confirm their ideological beliefs. People with more education are more likely to follow political news. Therefore, people with more education can actually become mis-educated.”

Even if Google does not engage in personalization, websites and activists by using such processes as Search Engine Optimization (SEO) or Google Bombing can ensure that for some search terms, certain results always appear on top thus creating a false image of websphere and consequently the world.

Whereas in theory Internet, social media and world’s most power search engine should have been making us better informed and bringing the world closer, the truth is that its actually quite an efficient medium to spread information and to reinforce our wrongly held notions.

 

Why should we be afraid of our online identities: Filter Bubble (Excerpt)

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Google’s filtering systems, for example, rely heavily on Web history and what you click on (click signals) to infer what you like and dislike. These clicks often happen in an entirely private context: The assumption is that searches for “intestinal gas” and celebrity gossip Web sites are between you and your browser. You might behave differently if you thought other people were going to see your searches. But it’s that behavior that determines what content you see in Google News, what ads Google displays—what determines, in other words, Google’s theory of you.
Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...

The basis for Facebook’s personalization is entirely different. While Facebook undoubtedly tracks clicks, its primary way of thinking about your identity is to look at what you share and with whom you interact. That’s a whole different kettle of data from Google’s: There are plenty of prurient, vain, and embarrassing things we click on that we’d be reluctant to share with all of our friends in a status update. And the reverse is true, too. I’ll cop to sometimes sharing links I’ve barely read—the long investigative piece on the reconstruction of Haiti, the bold political headline—because I like the way it makes me appear to others. The Google self and the Facebook self, in other words, are pretty different people. There’s a big difference between “you are what you click” and “you are what you share.”

Both are pretty poor representations of who we are, in part because there is no one set of data that describes who we are. “Information about our property, our professions, our purchases, our finances, and our medical history does not tell the whole story,” writes privacy expert Daniel Solove. “We are more than the bits of data we give off as we go about our lives.”

But the one-identity problem illustrates one of the dangers of turning over your most personal details to companies who have a skewed view of what identity is. Maintaining separate identity zones is a ritual that helps us deal with the demands of different roles and communities. And something’s lost when, at the end of the day, everything inside your filter bubble looks roughly the same. Your bacchanalian self comes knocking at work; your work anxieties plague you on a night out.

Excerpt From: Eli, Pariser. “The Filter Bubble.”

Why Artificial Intelligence cannot compete with Human Intelligence

Cover of "Predictably Irrational: The Hid...

It’s become a bit in vogue to pick on the human brain. We’re “predictably irrational,” in the words of behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s bestselling book. Stumbling on Happiness author Dan Gilbert presents volumes of data to demonstrate that we’re terrible at figuring out what makes us happy. Like audience members at a magic show, we’re easily conned, manipulated, and misdirected.

All of this is true. But as Being Wrong author Kathryn Schulz points out, it’s only one part of the story. Human beings may be a walking bundle of miscalculations, contradictions, and irrationalities, but we’re built that way for a reason: The same cognitive processes that lead us down the road to error and tragedy are the root of our intelligence and our ability to cope with and survive in a changing world. We pay attention to our mental processes when they fail, but that distracts us from the fact that most of the time, our brains do amazingly well.

The mechanism for this is a cognitive balancing act. Without our ever thinking about it, our brains tread a tightrope between learning too much from the past and incorporating too much new information from the present. The ability to walk this line—to adjust to the demands of different environments and modalities—is one of human cognition’s most astonishing traits. Artificial intelligence has yet to come anywhere close.

Excerpt From: Eli, Pariser. “The Filter Bubble.”

Experts are wrong more often

“Philip Tetlock, a political scientist, found similar results when he invited a variety of academics and pundits into his office and asked them to make predictions about the future in their areas of expertise. Would the Soviet Union fall in the next ten years? In what year would the U.S. economy start growing again? For ten years, Tetlock kept asking these questions. He asked them not only of experts, but also of folks he’d brought in off the street—plumbers and schoolteachers with no special expertise in politics or history. When he finally compiled the results, even he was surprised. It wasn’t just that the normal folks’ predictions beat the experts’. The experts’ predictions weren’t even close.

Why? Experts have a lot invested in the theories they’ve developed to explain the world. And after a few years of working on them, they tend to see them everywhere. For example, bullish stock analysts banking on rosy financial scenarios were unable to identify the housing bubble that nearly bankrupted the economy—even though the trends that drove it were pretty clear to anyone looking. It’s not just that experts are vulnerable to confirmation bias—it’s that they’re especially vulnerable to it.”

Excerpt From: Eli, Pariser. “The Filter Bubble.”

Internet makes educated mis-educated

English: Cropped version of File:Official port...

What’s perplexing is that since the election, the percentage of Americans who hold that belief (Obama is a Muslim) has nearly doubled, and the increase, according to data collected by the Pew Charitable Trusts, has been greatest among people who are college educated. People with some college education were more likely in some cases to believe the story than people with none—a strange state of affairs.

Why? According to the New Republic’s Jon Chait, the answer lies with the media: “Partisans are more likely to consume news sources that confirm their ideological beliefs. People with more education are more likely to follow political news. Therefore, people with more education can actually become mis-educated.”

Excerpt From: Eli, Pariser. “The Filter Bubble.”