Just Because Facebook is Foxy Doesn’t Mean We Need to Be Goats: The Fox and The Billy Goat

Facebook has mad amounts of information about us. And Google has magnitudes more data about us, though the Cambridge Analytica scandal is like a bright shiny object distracting us from that bigger picture.

The real crux is that we believe we are individuals, but on an aggregate, big data basis, it turns out that we are massively predictable.

Captain Fox was out and about with his friend, Billy the goat, he of the extra-tall rack of horns. Billy couldn’t see past the end of his nose. The Captain had a Master’s Degree in tricksterism.

Their parched throats obliged them to climb down into a well. There they slaked their thirst. After both had drunk their fill, the fox said to the billy goat:

What are we going to do now, my friend? It’s not all about having a drink. We need to get out of here. Lift your legs up high and your horns too. Put them against the wall. I’ll climb up the length of your spine to start, and then hoist myself further on your horns. Using this improvised ladder, I’ll get out. And then, I’ll help you.

By my beard, the billy goat said, that is good. I commend people like you, who have so much common sense. I’m telling you, left to my own devices, I would never have figured out the secret.

The fox exited the well and left his companion, though not before making a little sermon about patience.

If the heavens, he said, had given you as much judgment as beard on your chin, you would never have descended so lightly into the well. On that, goodbye, I’m out. Make every effort to extricate yourself. As for me, I have business elsewhere that won’t allow me to linger here.

In all things, one must think ahead to the conclusion.

Facebook (and Google and Amazon, to name a few) are Foxes Extraordinaire. They lead us down a well in search of water — to connect socially, to curate our persona, to find the niche groups we fit with, to lurk around the edges of other people’s lives and to search our most obscure interests. We congratulate the fox on its intelligence, its forward thinking genius in inventing this solution to a problem we didn’t even know we had.

What we didn’t understand was that, all along, the fox wasn’t our friend. Sure, the fox needs water too, but its definition of water is not the H2O we require to survive. Facebook (et al) make money by being addictively sticky. Facebook drinks when we are stuck in a well. Facebook is nourished by the eerie online coincidences that make us feel like our technology is in the room with us in our most private moments.

I listened recently to this Reply All podcast, in which the hosts looked at just how much Facebook can know about us by segmenting its enormous trove of data. Alex and PJ took calls from people who believe that Facebook is listening in on them through their phones and then targeting ads. I was suspicious of this possibility myself.

What was fascinating, was how utterly resistant every caller was to the idea that Facebook could know the things it did without somehow monitoring their offline conversations. And yet — it is increasingly apparent that Facebook (et al) knows more about us than we want to know about ourselves. It suits us to believe that Facebook is spying on our conversations, because then we don’t have to believe that the data we’ve given away for free in all our online interactions is as revealing as it is.

For the record — Alex and PJ, I now believe you that Facebook can do what it does without any audio surveillance!

Here’s another example: When I first signed on to Airbnb through Google+, the breadth of personal information they possessed surprised me. I thought about sharing what that info was here, but it’s private.

Let’s break it down.

First, there are logical explanations for how Facebook can deduce that we, say, are now interested in oat milk. I bought some Oatly online for my partner recently and the next week, the company was targeting their ads to him. Not hard to trace the connections. The Internet knows we’re married and live together. More. The Internet knows when we are traveling and where. It knows who we interact with online (even via email in many cases) and when they are traveling. Its data matrix knows when friends and family are visiting us. It knows what we’ve searched for and what groups we’ve joined and it advertises those same things to our “friends” and other people who are quantitatively like us.

Second, it knows what all our friends are searching for and therefore what we will be talking about. Once we’ve talked about something with our friends, we notice the targeted ads on that subject. Not an amazing coincidence or audio surveillance, but super savvy data analytics. As Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (a former Google data scientist) points out in this short video and in his book Everybody Lies, we are more honest online in our searches and interests than we are anywhere else in our lives. So the foxes not only have big data, they have better data.

While we want to believe that we are highly original beings, that’s not true when it comes to our consumption. In that, we are eminently predictable and barely look beyond the ends of our noses.

None of this is new. Hucksters, charlatans and snake oil sales associates are professions as ancient as any in the world. Just as the Madame who ran the brothel of old has moved online, so too the hawkers of everything under the sun — from oat milk, to political beliefs, to the cure for mortality. The only difference is that now the volume and velocity of the sales cycle make it seem more magical, rather than cunning.

And now? — we are down a well and the fox has left us, important business to attend to.

So what can we do? Delete Facebook? Maybe. But that’s not nearly enough if we continue shopping on Amazon and searching on Google. Are you willing to go off the grid completely? I’m not. Then how can we protect ourselves against those who prey on our needs, desires and fears with ads that suck us in and online fakery?

Here’s what we can do: Be curious, investigate, question — not just others, but, and this is key, our own beliefs and biases. We have to be willing to know ourselves.

While it will be hard to prevent our information from leaking all over the web, we can protect ourselves from it being used against us. When we are bold enough to face our true nature, then no data junkie fox is going to get us down a well.

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