Sci-fi or way too real? Google’s creepy ‘Selfish Ledger’ video and your digital DNA

Recently, there have been some rather disturbing, if not Orwellian, conversations around the idea that digital DNA might be used to predict, influence, and maybe even control human behavior. So what is digital DNA, and how could it possibly be used to control us? The answer might surprise you.

The phrase “digital DNA” has several different meanings, but most recently it has come to refer to a digital model of a person that is based solely on that person’s behavior. Every day we go online and do a variety of things. You might, for example, check a stock quote, make an online purchase, or like a friend’s photo on a social media site. In addition, we all interact with connected systems every day, and those systems also compile data. For example, you might use your credit card at a store or unknowingly walk in front of a security camera that has facial recognition capabilities. Even something as simple as opening a door can generate data.

The point is that nearly every time a person interacts with an electronic object, data is created. This data speaks volumes about who we are, what we believe, who we associate with, and what we do. This is the essence of digital DNA. Just as the DNA in our bodies essentially defines who we are, digital DNA describes who we are based on our past actions. Unlike our biological DNA, however, digital DNA is constantly evolving, because new data is being created all the time.

How can digital DNA be used?

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Recently, a leaked video titled Selfish Ledger (click on the YouTube image above to watch it) revealed that Google has an interest in our digital DNA. In case you are wondering about the title of the video, it got its name because each individual person’s data is described in the video as being a ledger of that person’s activities.

The video starts out innocently enough by describing the concept of a ledger and drawing a comparison between behavioral data and human genetics. From there, the video goes into what might best be described as a discussion of behavioral cause and effect. The idea is that we can achieve a desired result by changing our behavior in accordance with our goals.

To illustrate this point, the video shows a smartphone app that offers to help a user eat more healthily, protect the environment, or to support local businesses, as shown in the screen capture below. As the user goes through day-to-day life, the app steers the user toward making decisions that make it easier to achieve the stated goal. For example, a user who has chosen the option to protect the environment might be prompted to use a ride-sharing service rather than driving their own car.

digital DNA
The video illustrates how an app might help a user to achieve a goal by making better decisions.

Up to this point, the video is not really covering any new ground. There are already plenty of apps that are designed to help users exercise self-control, such as diet apps or fitness trackers. Furthermore, the user in the video is consciously choosing to use the app, rather than having behavior modification forced on him.

Shortly after this point, however, the video goes off the rails and abruptly transitions from being boring to being next-level creepy.

Because digital DNA (or a ledger, as the video calls it) is created by our behavior, one person’s digital DNA might be made up of different types of data than that of another person. For example, some of the newer vehicles that are on the market compile automated logs of where the vehicle has been (some boats even do this). Hence, commuting data might be available for someone who owns one of these cars, or for someone who uses a ride-sharing service, but not for someone who drives an older car that has not been outfitted with any modern electronics (assuming that the person’s smartphone is not being used for location tracking). The point is, for any person there are likely to be gaps in their data that occur as a result of either not engaging in certain behaviors, or using nonconnected devices.

The Google video suggests a system could be smart enough to not only realize which gaps exist in a person’s data but to also try to sell the person a device that will create the missing data. The device is marketed to the person in a way that takes their own personal tastes and preferences into account so as to maximize the chances of luring the person into the purchase. In other words, the system is making a concerted effort to collect more information about a person by convincing them to purchase an electronic gizmo through what has been cleverly disguised as a helpful shopping recommendation.

As if that weren’t disturbing enough, the video also suggested that the system could use automated manufacturing to build a custom device to sell to the person in the event that none of the stock devices are deemed suitable.

As I watched this portion of the video, I couldn’t help but be reminded of sci-fi movies such as “Terminator” or “The Matrix.” Both movies showed machines manufacturing other machines in an effort to wage war on humankind. Even though the Selfish Ledger video never discusses warfare, it does portray a machine actively making the decision to manufacture another machine as a way of tightening its grip on its human subjects.

Multigenerational data collection

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The next section of the video discusses the possibility of compiling vast quantities of ledger data (presumably from every living person) across several generations. That data could then be analyzed to create a model that uses a person’s decisions to predict future behaviors. The video explains that such a model could help us to better understand things like depression and poverty. Even so, I just can’t help but think of a “Minority Report”-like scenario in which the cops are authorized to preemptively bust people for crimes that they have not actually committed but that a computer model suggests they will commit in the future.

Behavior control

In the final section of the video, the narrator explained that because the human genome has been documented, it has become possible to target parts of a gene sequence and make modifications in an effort to achieve a desired result. The video then suggests that the same thing can be done with our digital DNA. According to the video, “as patterns begin to emerge in the behavioral sequences, they too may be targeted. The ledger could be given a focus, shifting it from a system which not only tracks our behavior but offers direction toward a desired result.”

This, of course, raises the questions of who decides what the desired result will be, and what gives them the right to make that decision on behalf of everyone else. While the video does not provide any direct answers to these questions, it does provide one not-so-subtle clue. The section of the video where the previously mentioned smartphone app was discussed states that “as an organization, Google would be responsible for offering suitable targets for a user’s ledger. While the notion of a global good is problematic, topics would likely focus on health or environmental impact to reflect Google’s values as an organization.”

Can it work?

Since the time that the Selfish Ledger video was leaked, it has been widely described using words such as creepy, unsettling, and even evil. Incidentally, according to a 2015 Time Magazine article, “Alphabet, which took over as Google’s new holding company on Friday, has dropped the tech giant’s “Don’t Be Evil” mantra from its code of conduct.” And perhaps even more worrisome, Google has dropped the slogan from its internal Code of Conduct.

The one question that I have yet to hear anyone ask, however, is whether or not the concept could actually work. Can Google (or anyone else for that matter) actually use digital DNA to influence human behavior? Believe it or not, I think that this is the wrong question to ask.

There is absolutely no question that digital DNA can influence our behavior. We’ve all seen it done many times. The practice was just called by a different name. Let me give you a few examples. How many times have you purchased something online that you didn’t originally intend to buy, simply because the website used what it knows about you to recommend a product that you would probably be drawn to? How many times have you responded to an automated friend suggestion on social media, or followed someone on Twitter because of a suggestion? All of these are examples of websites using what they know about us (our so-called digital DNA) to influence our behavior.

The question, therefore, is not whether digital DNA can be used to influence our behavior but rather to what extent our behavior can be influenced, or even controlled.

Elementary school-level biology classes teach the concept of conditioning through positive or negative reinforcement (think of Pavlov’s dogs). These fundamental concepts of behavioral conditioning would seem to indicate that if Google really wants to control human behavior, it will need to create either a system or rewards or (more likely) a punitive system for dealing with behavior that it deems to be undesirable. This could be anything from legal enforcement to public shaming. The scary thing to think about is that the ledger theoretically knows enough about us to be able to determine what sort of enforcement action would be most motivating for each individual person. In other words, the ledger has enough information to figure out what scares you the most. Think about that one.

The ‘evil’ ramifications

Although confirmed to be authentic, the Selfish Ledger video has been dismissed as being little more than a thought exercise. Even so, the mere existence of the video proves that somebody at Google is thinking about these sorts of things. Maybe the question that we should really be asking is whether Hollywood had it right all along. Is it really possible for machines to enslave the human race?

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