August 14, 2015

We're all modern test subjects. Credit: Horia Varlan / Flickr Creative Commons

If you’re on the Internet – that is, if you’re alive in 2015 – chances are you’re a test subject. There’s a reason Facebook, Amazon, and Google know so much about you: they are constantly toying with user experiences to see how you react. And, despite the occasional outing, they work pretty hard to make sure no one suspects a thing.

These invasions demand outrage – if users don’t shout at the top of their lungs, they’ll fall into a 1984-esque trap without even knowing it... Right?

Well, maybe not, according to Professors Michelle Meyer and Chris Chabris, who say our unwavering distrust of Big Brother is misguided:

“It’s a good idea to assume that there’s always experiments running – and not to be upset about it,” says Chabris. “This is the way websites are improving quality of their services. It’s not a scary thing.”

Chabris, who teaches at Union College, and Meyer, who holds positions at Union Graduate College and the Ichan School of Medicine, argue that we can look at corporate experimentation in two ways: as a massive invasion of privacy, or as a subtle means of enhancing our plugged-in lifestyles.

“The mistake that people are making is what we call the A/B allusion: the assumption that the status quo actually works,” says Meyer.

Neither professor believes that these experiments should be brushed off or ignored. Corporate testing can have profound impacts on our attitudes, emotions, buying habits, and love lives – which might be all the more reason to let them happen.

“There is no default or true state of the world online. It’s all the product of algorithms,” explains Chabris.

It’s easy to understand why tech giants want to optimize these algorithms whenever possible. Take OkCupid, for example: the dating site purposely paired a handful of “bad matches” to test its romantic predictions. Around the same time, Facebook’s “mood contagion” experiment manipulated millions of newsfeeds to track negative and positive emotional responses.

Both websites were met with immediate criticism for the undisclosed tests. But did they deserve it?

“Once there was credible evidence that certain posts were causing psychological harm in the form of jealousy, sadness, even mild depression… it seems to me that it’s more ethical and responsible to investigate that,” says Meyer.

Chabris concurs: “It bothers me a little bit to say Facebook, Google, and Amazon have to be ultra-careful when they’re experimenting, yet not be careful when they’re just changing their products or deciding what stories to show us on the news.”

“These things all have effects,” Chabris continues. “Only in the experiments can you actually measure them and figure out what they are.”

The two professors do tack on one, substantial caveat: Big companies have an unprecedented amount of power in our lives. And they need to make sure that power is exercised in a legal and transparent way.

“Whenever a social scientist can get their hands on a lot of data that comes from natural behavior, it’s exciting,” says Chabris. “But while it’s nice to see this methodology become a widespread tool, you want to make sure it’s done right, and done responsibly.”

innovation hub, Business, Kara Miller, ihub, Sci and Tech

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