Why is liberalism under particular threat from big data?
Liberalism is based on the assumption that you have privileged access to your own inner world of feelings and thoughts and choices, and nobody outside you can really understand you. This is why your feelings are the highest authority in your life and also in politics and economics – the voter knows best, the customer is always right. Even though neuroscience shows us that there is no such thing as free will, in practical terms it made sense because nobody could understand and manipulate your innermost feelings. But now the merger of biotech and infotech in neuroscience and the ability to gather enormous amounts of data on each individual and process them effectively means we are very close to the point where an external system can understand your feelings better than you. We’ve already seen a glimpse of it in the last epidemic of fake news.
There’s always been fake news but what’s different this time is that you can tailor the story to particular individuals, because you know the prejudice of this particular individual. The more people believe in free will, that their feelings represent some mystical spiritual capacity, the easier it is to manipulate them, because they won’t think that their feelings are being produced and manipulated by some external system.
The idea of free information is extremely dangerous when it comes to the news industry. If there’s so much free information out there, how do you get people’s attention? This becomes the real commodity. At present there is an incentive in order to get your attention – and then sell it to advertisers and politicians and so forth – to create more and more sensational stories, irrespective of truth or relevance. Some of the fake news comes from manipulation by Russian hackers but much of it is simply because of the wrong incentive structure. There is no penalty for creating a sensational story that is not true. We’re willing to pay for high quality food and clothes and cars, so why not high quality information?