This week I completed a book by Shoshana Zuboff that my brother, James, had pointed me toward. I had also recently completed two other books that have been on my list for quite some time. The timing of each of these books and their futurist warning, deep research, and outstanding storytelling caused a flurry of Venn-diagramming on my part for a couple of days, resulting in that image above.
The first book (and the last one I finished) is arguably the most complete work in understanding the new economy powered by data and access to information. Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power is a stunningly complete guide to the history and the tradeoff we have all made between our privacy and several massive data platforms. This hasn’t been a fair trade in that most people don’t even know they are entering into a data partnership with these companies. Zuboff is a master of explaining the balance between our digital selves and our future and she dismantles the problems inherent in the approach and (seemingly) arrogant designs toward domination that Google, Facebook, and others pursue in their unrelenting march toward total data control.
The second book, with themes and concepts that netted a co-author the Nobel Prize in economics, is titled Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Authors Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein provide a rich explanation of their outline of Libertarian Paternalism, the concept that it may be appropriate for governments or authorities to “nudge” people into making better decisions by altering the default and decision criteria made available to them. They explain very clearly and with excellent examples that perhaps setting your 401k account to default to the maximum savings rate would be better for you than allowing the default withdrawal to be $0. Their argument is that people, as individuals, often do not act logically and therefore should be nudged in the right direction. The concept of the “nudge” is then analyzed across multiple industries and situations, pointing out that this is absolutely commonplace already in almost every product or tech gadget you purchase.
The third book and the first one I completed was another great story by Yuval Noah Harari. In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harari outlines what the future holds for us all. As we live longer and embrace the opportunities of life-expanding and ability-expanding genetic encoding, what can we expect? From Harari’s point of view, we can expect that super-humans who have been genetically engineered or cybernetically enhanced to be superior to Homo Sapiens will ultimately run the world. To illustrate the point, Harari poses a question about the numbers of geniuses at any given time on our planet. If at any given time the world’s genius count is roughly 1/4th of 1% (0.25%) of the overall population, what would happen if that number increased to 2, 3, or 10%? Would we solve more problems or create them? Harari points out that as information, data, and knowledge become more and more abundant, the myriad issues of super-human capabilities become more urgent. In the past, genius-level intellects had access to only so much data, but soon, they may have all the data and all the brain-power, which would (optimistically) be amazing or (not as optimistically) the end of our world.
The Venn Center is Terrifying
So what happens if you overlap the sphere of content in each of these books? You might arrive at the center point which I have called, “Super-Humans Nudge us toward ‘better lives‘” through analyzing everything about us. If each of these books is pointing toward a future where there are genetically or otherwise “improved” humans that, through the Informational Industrial Complex, can access massive amounts of personal data about the rest of us, then what is stop them from gently (or not so gently) nudging us to do as they deem appropriate?
That deeper blue (get it?) in the center may or may not be just around the corner. Through efforts like Article 22 of the GDPR, governments and ethicists are trying to help build protections now, that could hopefully prevent automated processing and access to our personal data. That said, it is hard to balance this with the opportunity that is possible to improve a myriad of different problems in multiple industries.
So, when we think about that overlapping future, one important question is… when will all of this happen? And to answer that, I’d like to examine the three other areas of overlap in the Venn diagram. The areas where two of the books overlap, but not all three.
Digital Marketing = Surveillance + Nudge
Currently, digital marketers, as well as most other types of marketing, occupy the Venn area between data surveillance and the desire to nudge people to act in their interests. Advertising and marketing in all its forms wish to create a “customer journey” that highlights the right product or service, to the right person, at the right time. These journeys are analyzed constantly, particularly in light of the amount of data that can be accessed on every user that visits their sites, clicks their ads, or shares their content.
The ability for companies to leverage cookies, profiles, aggregator data, location information, and just about any other metric to better target their audience created a massive market opportunity for Adtech. We’ve all benefited from this in our work lives, and we’ve all suffered from it in our personal lives where incessant retargeting ads follow us for months. “Stalk” is probably a better word.
To be fair though, the process of pushing users or potential customers toward certain actions, like those described in Nudge, have been around forever and should not be scary to any of us. It is the overlap and optimization strategies that combine these techniques with data collection and surveillance that many of us are now trying to curtail.
Government Officials = Homo Deus + Nudge
Homo Deus is about the smartest people in the room (or strongest, or fastest). Sometime in the future, those people will exist. Today, however, we have politicians, bureaucrats, and governments (in general) that often believe they know better than individuals, and so they choose where and when to nudge the general public. Here in the United States, it seems you can’t be a rising star in a political party without also coming off as something of a know-it-all. Opinions on the relationship between politics and intelligence differ, but the ability for a government to persuade or influence their respective population is necessary for success.
In the overlap between Homo Deus and Nudge, we can already see the effect of government influencing a populace. Getting an entire nation, state, or locality to agree on anything is hard work but sometimes just the ordering of a ballot initiative or the availability of polling locations in a rainstorm will make all the difference. The bottom line is that when a group of elected leaders believes they are superior in some way or another they are likely to employ the tactics we find in Nudge to get what they want.
Titans of Tech = Homo Deus + Surveillance
The last area of overlap in our Venn of bestselling books is the land of the Tech Titans. If you are Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, or any of the others around the world, where your ability to gather personal data and profiles consumes your product roadmap, then you live in this overlapping space. Between Homo Deus and The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is your sweet spot.
Why would I think this? Having worked with hundreds of data platforms over the years, there is a common arrogance that the founders and executives share. Certainly, not all, but many of the employees learn that arrogance as it pertains to individual autonomy. Some believe they are more correct, or smarter, or better equipped to tackle a problem – a defining characteristic of great entrepreneurs and the teams they surround themselves with. Many of them reading this passage now, are thinking to themselves, “... but we are smarter! That’s why we are the best!” Maybe so. But the best entrepreneurs are also highly empathetic to their market and the desires of their customers.
Unfortunately, being smarter or better can’t just be about products and innovation. For the Tech Titans to really be superior they must also bring that excellence to their approach to customers and data privacy. It can’t all just be lip service. And when you read this week about Facebook leaving hundreds of millions of passwords in plain text for years, you genuinely have to add that to a long list of patterned behavior. The pattern is one of arrogance and superiority, much like the super-humans in Homo Deus.
Combine that with the unprecedented amount of data that the Tech Titans like Facebook already have, and you have the most likely portion of the Venn diagram to lead us into the overlap for all three books.
Exciting, isn’t it?
Go out and read all three of these books. They are each outstanding in their own way but, combined, they are signaling an incredible future that we all share a responsibility in shaping.