3 ways to make better decisions – by thinking like a computer
I’m a computational cognitive scientist. I spend my time trying to understand how it is that human minds work, from our amazing successes to our dismal failures. To do that, I think about the computational structure of the problems that arise in everyday life, and compare the ideal solutions to those problems to the way that we actually behave. As a side effect, I get to see how applying a little bit of computer science can make human decision-making easier.
How data brokers sell your identity
This motley set of characteristics, attitudes, thoughts, and desires come very close to defining me as a person. It is also a precise and accurate description of what a group of companies I had never heard of, personal data trackers, had learned about me. My journey to uncover what data companies knew began in 2014, when I became curious about the murky world of data brokers, a multi-billion-pound industry of companies that collect, package, and sell detailed profiles of individuals based on their online and offline behaviours.
What I found out shocked me, and reinforced my anxieties about a profit-led system designed to log behaviours every time we interact with the connected world. I already knew about my daily records being collected by services such as Google Maps, Search, Facebook, or contactless credit card transactions. But you combine that with public information such as land registry, council tax, or voter records, along with my shopping habits and real-time health and location information, and these benign data sets begin to reveal a lot, such as whether you’re optimistic, political, ambitious, or a risk-taker. Even as you’re listening to me, you may be sedentary, but your smartphone can reveal your exact location, and even your posture. Your life is being converted into such a data package to be sold on. Ultimately, you are the product.
How the hyperlink changed everything
A hyperlink is an interface element, and what I mean by that is, when you’re using software on your phone or your computer, there’s a lot of code behind the interface that’s giving all the instructions for the computer on how to manage it, but that interface is the thing that humans interact with: when we press on this, then something happens.
When they first came around, they were pretty simple and not particularly glamorous. Designers today have a huge range of options. The hyperlink uses what’s called a markup language – HTML. There’s a little string of code. And then you put the address of where you want to send the person.
How the progress bar keeps you sane
The progress bar makes waiting more exciting… and mitigates our fear of death. Journalist Daniel Engber explores how it came into existence.
So if you have a progress bar that just moves at a constant rate – let’s say, that’s really what’s happening in the computer – that will feel to people like it’s slowing down. We get bored. Well, now you can start trying to enhance it and make it appear to move more quickly than it really is, make it move faster at the beginning, like a burst of speed. That’s exciting, people feel like, “Oh! Something’s really happening!” Then you can move back into a more naturalistic growth of the progress bar as you go along. You’re assuming that people are focusing on the passage of time – they’re trying to watch grass grow, they’re trying to watch a pot of water, waiting for it to boil, and you’re just trying to make that less boring, less painful and less frustrating than it was before.
The case for a decentralised internet
The current internet we are using is about gatekeepers. If you want to reach something on the web, then you need to go through multiple middlemen. First, a domain name server, then a server hosting company, which usually points you to a third party, to a web hosting service. And this happens every time you want to reach a website on the web. But these gatekeepers are vulnerable to internet attacks and also makes the censorship and the surveillance easier. And the situation is getting worse. Everything is moving to the cloud, where the data is hosted by giant corporations. This move creates much, much more powerful middlemen.
And it’s very easy to abuse this power. For example, last year, a CEO of a company that acts as a gatekeeper for nine million websites decided, after some public pressure, that one of the sites it manages, a far right page, should be blocked. He then sent an internal email to his coworkers. “This was an arbitrary decision. I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet.” Even he admits, “No one should have this power.” As a response, one of the employees asked him, “Is this the day the Internet dies?”
I don’t think we are actually killing the internet, but I do think that we are in the middle of a kind of irresponsible centralization process that makes our internet more fragile. The decentralized, people-to-people web solves this problem by removing the central points, the web-hosting services. It empowers the users to have host sites they want to preserve.
The surveillance device you carry around all day
We make three mistakes: the first is underestimating the quantity of information that we produce every day; the second is depreciating the value of that information; and the third is thinking that our principal problem is a distant and super powerful agency that is called NSA. And it is true that NSA has the major access, better resources, the best tools, but they don’t need any of that to spy on us, because we have everything there; we live in glass houses.
There are thousands of ways to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and sometimes you don’t even have to move. In Holland they had a census. It was a census that included religions with high devotion rates in the world. They wanted to know how many Protestants, Catholics, Jews they had to know how much money they had to put in each community, in each church or synagogue. What happened? When the Nazis came, they had their homework done. Only 10 percent of the Dutch Jews survived in the Second World War. If that database hadn’t exist, the figures would’ve been very different. What I mean is that our problem isn’t the NSA, neither our corrupt governments, neither ambitious companies that want to sell our data, neither bad people, and it has nothing to do with their intentions, nor with their bad intentions. The problem is that the very existence of that information makes us vulnerable in the ways that we can’t anticipate right now.