I am shocked -- shocked!-- to discover that there is gambling going on... - Captain Renault

The recent paper, Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks has raised a storm of controversy. Some comments have been interesting, others misinformed or misguided, at least in my view. But what struck me most strongly about at least one part of the reaction is its congruence with other discussion, such some of that around Google Glass, in that some people seem to object to being informed that something is happening.

In the case of the Facebook study, there seem to be many objecting to the fact that Facebook is reorganizing their newsfeed to engage in the study. Yet one must strain mightily even to pretend ignorance of the fact that Facebook can reorganize one's newfeed. After all, the basic difference between 'top stories' and 'most recent' is that the first involves Facebook manipulating one's newsfeed in order to present what Facebook's systems think is most appropriate.

And, of course, as Randall Munroe cleverly noted, no user has any real idea of what algorithms might be used there.

More generally, it can (or at least should) hardly be a surprise to any reasonably informed individual that microtargeting is now regularly being used to market everything from beer to political candidates, and further, that such microtarging involves manipulating what is presented to the user/reader/viewer based upon algorithms designed to have the most/best effect upon that user.

In short, such manipulation is already extremely widespread, not just on Facebook, but all over the Internet/Web. The biggest difference between the recent published experiment and the rest is that the researchers chose to make the information public, rather than keeping it secret.

In my mind, this almost directly parallels much of the uproar over the use of Google Glass.

It is not the only one, but certainly one significant strain of the objection to Google Glass is that "s/he might be filming or taking pictures of me without me knowing!"

But certainly anyone likely to come into regular contact with Google Glass users cannot be unaware of the fact that, in any place that one is likely to find a Google Glass user, one is almost certain also to find a whole collection of smart phone users, each of whom is carrying a recording device, and each of whom could easily be filming or taking photographs without others' knowledge. Anyone "reading" from a device could easily be filming the surroundings, as could anyone holding a mobile phone to her ear -- and in these cases those in the surrounding area would think nothing of it.

(And this is without considering such things as intentionally "hidden" recording devices, that one can now easily purchase online for less than fifteen dollars.)

All of which is why any location that is truly concerned about recording prohibits the use of any recording devices, including any use of smartphones or other devices that could contain cameras.

The parallell with the Facebook objections seems to me to be that, with Google Glass, what must be the real concern is knowledge of the possibility of recording. It cannot reasonably be the mere possibility of recording itself, because that possibility exists wherever one finds smartphones (at least!), and the vast majority of those objecting to Glass do not at the same time object to smartphones.

All of which seems very odd, in that in both of these cases, the strenuous objection seems to be, not to the activities themselves, but to being informed about the activities. What such objectors seem to be saying is: "I don't want to know! Give me my illusions!"

Comments (30)