Our personality, the pattern of our behaviors, takes shape according to our genetic material that we inherit and the environment we have been brought up in. In other words, most of the researchers agreed that both genetics and environment play an equally important role in our personality. This means that our core beliefs, values, and attitudes are either inherited or learned from our upbringing; somehow, most of us pick all of these fractals, which builds our personality, from our immediate surroundings. During our childhood, this immediate surrounding is our family, school, kith and kin. However, Modern technology is surrounding us from every angle and this immediate surrounding now includes the internet world too. This invisible part of our environment is constantly shaping and reshaping our beliefs, values, attitudes, and many other aspects of our individuality. Being human was the amalgam of genetic and environment, and this environment used to be calm and not as volatile as it is now. The constant changes and persuasive strength of this virtual environment made us more prone to its impact and control. We used to be at the driving seat, as we were not being actively and constantly persuaded to pick up the changes.
We used to be born once in this world physically and we all remember that day as our birthday. After that day, we reborn in the digital world once we entered the internet world. We as a person have no idea of ourselves as much as the internet world knows about us. In simple terms, we create a profile on any internet platform and it starts storing our data. Here what we need to understand is that it does not store only our basic information but what it stores is our behaviors and based on all those information it predicts our future behaviors. Every single key we strike on our laptops or smartphones, any web page we open, any search we do, online shopping, banking, even conversations are all stored in a database. This data is creating our virtual personality and all the things we do in the virtual world are stored every single day. This stored information helps advanced software to convert it into algorithms and in reverse helps it to predict our future behaviors. Do you wonder these days sometimes when you had a private conversation regarding any product on your breakfast table or you searched something on the internet and surprisingly as you log in to one of your social media accounts or open any web page and you found the same ads popping up on the web page regarding the product. This supposed to be a private conversation you had with your family member about the product or a holiday trip. We are amazed and never gave so much thought about how it happened and most of us take it as a coincidence and move on. However, the thing is, such an incident occurs because the data of our behavior is being stored under the folder of our virtual person.
The data, which feeds the identity of our virtual person, is constantly updated. This storage helps big companies to predict our choices, needs, desires, and wishes and with accuracy, they help us in our choices. Until this point, all this looks amazing and good as companies like Google or Facebook seem to take care of our choices and are offering their “helping hand” to make our life better and easy. Then the twist comes: What they actually do is manipulating the data and trying to persuade us at our unconscious level without giving us a blind clue.
Imagine, this data, which is stored under the name of our virtual person, is sold to an online shopping company, then what can happen? Most of us can think that we will start getting more ads on our social networking pages; that is it! However, the reality is that it could be only the tip of the iceberg. Once they have enough data of our daily activities, based on this data they can predict and drive our consuming behavior according to their manufacturing products. This means according to their wishes bigger companies can easily persuade a person what to buy and what not.
Imagine you are planning to buy a holiday trip and you decide where you want to go according to your budget. However, the tragic part is coming; because your virtual personal data will have been shared and manipulated already, whatever choices you were planning to have cannot be your choice any more. If for example, you are having less budget, the date will have been shared with the Bank, which will persuade you with amazing Bank Loan offers, you will receive messages of discounts and offers from travel companies and hotels. You may receive messages and ads from airline companies for the best air travel packages etc. So in a nutshell, you will be persuaded to join a trip which is not at all you planned. The game of persuasion will be well played at your subconscious level about which you had no idea of. Now, do you think the choices we are making in our everyday lives are ours?
The debate on WhatsApp changing policies opened this issue widely and bought it to notice. What most of us are thinking is that this is only an issue of our privacy. However, most of us are not even aware of what other consequences all this data is having. None of them is concerned with our personal chats or photographs we shared. The point is to intrude deep in our personal conversations and get more data in depth to make each individual’s virtual personality stronger so they can predict our consumer behavior more strongly and accurately and can persuade each choice we make according to these multi-billion dollar companies’ wishes. Moreover, not only this, our choices will not be manipulated and persuaded for consumer behaviors but in every sphere of life such as politics, economics, and many other fields. It is a matter of reshaping us through the virtual world and making humans permeable to manipulations. It is not a question of assessing and intruding on our personal pieces of information but it is an intrusion on our cognitions, metacognitions, and our decision-making capacities.
I wish to end this article with one of the recent jokes I received; it sounds a joke but it’s the truth of our virtual personalities, and will make us understand how all this works…
Ordering a Pizza in 2021
CALLER: Is this Pizza Delight?
GOOGLE: No sir, it is Google Pizza.
CALLER: I must have dialed a wrong number. Sorry.
GOOGLE: No sir, Google bought Pizza Delight last month.
CALLER: OK. I would like to order a pizza.
GOOGLE: Do you want your usual, sir?
CALLER: My usual? You know me.
GOOGLE: According to our caller ID data sheet, the last 12 times you called you ordered an extra-large pizza with three cheeses, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, and meatballs on a thick crust.
CALLER: OK! That is what I want…
GOOGLE: May I suggest that this time you order a pizza with ricotta, arugula, sun-dried tomatoes, and olives on a whole-wheat gluten-free thin crust?
CALLER: What? I detest vegetables!
GOOGLE: Your cholesterol is not good, sir.
CALLER: How the hell do you know!
GOOGLE: Well, we cross-referenced your home phone number with your medical records. We have the result of your blood tests for the last 7 years.
CALLER: Okay, but I do not want your rotten vegetable pizza! I already take medication for my cholesterol.
GOOGLE: Excuse me sir, but you have not taken your medication regularly. According to our database, you purchased only a box of 30 cholesterol tablets once, at Drug RX Network, 4 months ago.
CALLER: I bought more from another drugstore.
GOOGLE: That does not show on your credit card statement.
CALLER: I paid in cash.
GOOGLE: But you did not withdraw enough cash according to your bank statement.
CALLER: I have other sources of cash.
GOOGLE: That does not show on your last tax return unless you bought them using an undeclared income source, which is against the law.
CALLER: WHAT THE HELL!
GOOGLE: I am sorry, sir, we use such information only with the sole intention of helping you.
CALLER: Enough already! I am sick to death of Google, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and all the others. I am going to an island without internet, cable TV, where there is no cell phone service and no one to watch me or spy on me.
GOOGLE: I understand sir, but you need to renew your passport first. It expired 6 weeks ago…
Dr. Thseen Nazir is Asst. Prof. Dept. of Counseling and Guidance, Ibn Haldun University, Başakşehir, Istanbul, Turkey