On Tuesday 10 February, Daniele Orner returned to the MBA Tuesday Club to give a fascinating lecture on the theme of Digital Intelligence. It provoked a stimulating debate and changed perspectives. Daniele is best described as a tech entrepreneur and a computational social scientist. Over the past 10 years, her career has been devoted to discovering ways to identify patterns in people’s behaviour and use those findings to create disruptive online products and services.
She has worked with numerous start-ups as well as major brands (including Barclays, Burberry, British Airways, Johnnie Walker and Unilever’). Daniele was Head of Digital Intelligence at Bartle Bogle Hegarty and a board member of the Black Sheep Fund, an early-stage investment firm dealing with digital and mobile technologies. Daniele was also Co-founder of Psydentity, a service capable of determining the personality profile of individuals and groups based on their online behaviour using the tools of social psychology, a subject that she studied at the LSE.
You can watch the full MBA Tuesday Club presentation below.
So what is Digital Intelligence?
Does it have its limitations? And what are its philosophical, political and social implications? Digital Intelligence is about using digital tools to analyse online behaviour. It’s a frightening thought but it’s a fact that there are masses of behavioural data and sensitive personal information out there in the ether on all of us. Whenever we use a tablet or a laptop to browse the web or go on social media we are leaving a trail of breadcrumbs behind like children lost in the wood. Moreover there is the internet that we know about and the internet that we don’t know about. The visible web that we can see is the tip of the iceberg and makes up only 10% of what actually exists, while the rest is hidden amongst the murky and sinister world of the “Deep Web”. So with all that: who is watching us and what are they looking for? Daniele mentioned the two main kinds of actor who are monitoring our online activities i.e. governments and corporations.
First, let’s start with corporations. Online companies basically either sell products or act as ad platforms online and so have clear business needs to gain access to masses of information on consumers. Despite the ultra-modernity of the web, business motives remain old fashioned: it’s all about the sales or the marketing. The type of online activity a corporation chooses to engage in depends on its business model. Put bluntly whether they make their money mostly through online sales or online advertising.
Furthermore businesses themselves trade and exchange in consumer data. This creates a complex ecology where consumer data is shared amongst a plethora of companies online. A web of confusion best comprehended through this looking at this infographic:
Governments are watching us too. Despite Orwellian conspiracy theories and talk about “Big Brother” democratic governments often act from reasonable (if not wholly pure) motives. The “Deep Web” and the TOR project provide an anonymous space and privacy online in the face of increasing surveillance by the intelligence community. However the “Deep Web” is rife with criminal activity including drug dealing, child pornography and weapons trading, things that any civilised society ought to take measures to prevent… but then also whistle-blowers and dissidents like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange.
So what are the limitations of digital intelligence?
Perhaps the most crucial one is that we are all still Pavlovian dogs and behaviouralism isn’t an exact science because predicting someone’s behaviour based on one isolated thing is problematic and not always accurate. This means that erratic or random online behaviour can be enough to through online companies off the scent. In short “Clicks don’t maketh the man”.
Another limitation is what Daniele called the “multiplicity of selves” in particular the distinction between the Discreet Self and the Broadcasted Self. There is already evidence from studies that people are becoming “jaded” with broadcasting every aspect of their lives on social networks, such as Facebook and Instagram and so we may be returning to a more discreet mode of self-expression. This dichotomy between the Discreet and Broadcast Self brings us onto the philosophical implications about what kind of society we want live in and what rules should govern the relationships between corporations, governments and the people. Do we want to inhabit an online world of extreme openness or extreme closedness (a world where we obsessively encrypt all our home devices)? Daniele thinks the future will be characterised by something in between the two extremes and it calls for a new kind of politics that of the Hacktivist, “Meconomy” and the Pirate Party movement.