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thoughts & essays   |   jeremy lee

Aggregate Patterns:
The Purpose Behind Analyzing Human Behavior

jeremy lee
Fall 2020

I.  Human Behavior and the Ability to Modify It


The ability to recognize patterns in human behavior has long been a tool used to shape desired results. Indeed, the fields of social psychology and behaviorism have shown, scientifically, that human behavior can be influenced and modified. Today these patterns, when analyzed and applied effectively through technology, have the potential to shape society with unprecedented precision. The central theme of this essay is questioning the purpose behind aggregating, analyzing, and modifying human behaviors as they relate to capitalist or humanist interests.

The capitalist is inherently interested in social "stability and uniformity" in an attempt to increase certainty, minimize investment, and maximize profit.[1] The tool of choice for today's capitalists is surveillance capitalism, where human behavior is systematically collected, analyzed, and commodified for profit. The humanist, in contrast, strives for "a society which gives its members the greatest possible amount of individual liberty, but [simultaneously] the most satisfying incentives to altruistic effort . . . [so as to] consciously [tend] towards the realization of the highest human aspirations."[2] A humanist application of the same tool--systemic analysis of aggregate human patterns and behavior--should be just as capable at providing guided access to information; information genuinely believed to improve, or at least maintain, quality of life for those who want it.


II.  The Shape of Society


A.    Capitalism & Conditioned Manipulation


Charming demagogues and learned business persons have known the power of propaganda and advertising for millennia. Of particular importance here is the advent of commercial advertising and systematic analysis of the effect marketing tools have on consumer behavior. Prior to the deployment of the internet and development of surveillance capitalism, however, capitalists were relatively limited in the quality and quantity of data they could extract from consumers. Consider how sales predictions work when they are based on relatively simple social psychology, behaviorism, and statistics: the science and math work together to advise retailers that more people will purchase their new fall fashion jacket if it’s solid print or checkered; charcoal grey or maroon sunset. Based on specific tools like focus groups, rewards clubs, and more general metrics like understanding cultural values, the ability to predict or modify human behavior came with a margin of error; that is, the accuracy in predicting or influencing consumer behavior was plus-or-minus X.

Internet connected devices and data mined from them have revolutionized what "margin of error" now means to capitalists. Many of the applications associated with devices are driven by algorithms designed to keep users engaged--and they work, well. This surveilled engagement provides a level of insight on human behavior and patterns exponentially more detailed and powerful than before. Capitalists have already experimented with conditioning tools designed to alter moods of users and as intimate metrics about human patterns and behavior continue to accumulate by the millisecond, the accuracy and potency of tools like this will grant the keys to broader social conditioning. The desired results of capitalists are bound to become more nefarious than mood alteration, especially as users become younger--social casting and the loss of conscious choice are easier to solidify when implemented from birth. Political results, social and cultural demographics, school, job, and marriage placements--all become prescribed for social stability and uniformity in the capitalist’s pursuit of eliminating margin of error completely.


B.    A Humanist Approach


The consequences of capitalist driven applications of modified behavior appear quite dire, but there is an alternative model: the humanist approach. Aggregated data analytics, when applied to intimate measurements of human patterns and behavior, has the potential to revolutionize what quality of life means to the individual and society as a whole. Medicine, in the physiological sense, has been, and continues to pursue this goal as a matter of course. Tests and studies are aggregated over time to produce a consensus that condition X is, or is likely caused by, Y. Devices tasked with tracking breathing, sleep, organs, food preference, knowledge comprehension, mood, social engagement, and other patterns, when aggregated and analyzed, enable individuals, if they so choose, to access guided information genuinely believed to maintain or improve quality of life. This humanist approach, when paired with the same intimate metrics about human patterns and behavior accumulated by the millisecond, could, then, facilitate a society where the individuals are empowered by their data, instead of beholden to it.

The idea, unfortunately, reads like a utopian fantasy; and, admittedly, the future, like today, will not unfold in a vacuum. Intimate data about an individual’s physiology collected, stored, and analyzed is a dangerous condition where bad actors lurk and seek to abuse the information. Additionally, the benefits of this model tend to become dizzying. Take, for example, opting into a system, that, based on aggregate data notifies someone they fit a pattern associated with an imminent heart attack; that seems objectively good. Whereas being notified one fits the pattern of imminently committing a violent crime? maybe not so much. Another example, straddling the line between good and bad, could be a notification that one fits the pattern of imminent suicide. Access to information like this is clearly illuminating and simultaneously troubling; such that it becomes difficult to balance the ethical considerations with the benefits behind some of these “notifications.”


III.  Conclusion


Today, the interests of capitalism seem to be winning out in defining the purpose behind aggregating, analyzing, and modifying human patterns and behavior. Political interests are not far behind as governments, too, recognize the power these tools provide in reducing margins-of-error. But, we don’t have to accept these as the primary purpose of aggregating human patterns and behavior; indeed, we should actively reject them. The humanist approach, while itself also susceptible to misuse, is at least an attempt to use data for the greater good – empowering individuals with the ability to improve their quality of life if they so choose.

[1] See Aldous Huxley, “Science and Civilisation,” broadcast on the BBC National Programme, January 13, 1932.

[2] Id.

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