The Cougar Chronicle

Is Technology Hijacking Our Self-Identity?

Jadan Smithers, Assistant News Editor

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In recent years the role of technology in our lives has grown to the extent that it plays a key role in our self-identity and the way we perceive reality. This is a development that is reinforced in society’s collective subconscious with every new Facebook account created, each Amazon Echo purchased, and every keystroke on our computers and cell phones.

 

Today, almost every piece of technology available is “smart,” meaning it is programmed with algorithms designed to accumulate data and “learn” about its users. These algorithms, often marketed under the guise of convenience, allow tech companies to know more about you than your closest family member by tracking your technological activity. Once they have this information, known as your data profile, these companies can either use it to promote their own products and services or sell the information to another entity that will promote other products or services.

 

Most active technology-users have experienced this while searching for a specific product through an app, then discover a similar product being advertised on a completely separate platform. For example, I was recently looking at used cars on Craigslist, and suddenly advertisements for used cars started appearing on my Facebook page. This is technology algorithms and data mining at work.

 

So how exactly do these algorithms manipulate our self-identity?

 

When our entire identities are projected online through likes, clicks and searches, tech companies, and any program or individual with enough resources to acquire data profiles from said tech companies, is able to determine what will make you feel fearful and outraged, and what will make you feel joyful and trusting. Those entities can then target us with content that reinforces the emotions they want us to feel.

 

In other words, through our interactions with technology, we are essentially surrendering our right to be ourselves. We are allowing outside influences to dictate who we are and how we think.

 

The motivations for this manipulation can range from increasing product sales to influencing votes and elections. The most recent example of this kind of manipulation can be seen in the recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal that revealed tens-of-millions of data profiles were sold to, and used by, Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. These profiles were used to target certain voters with online hoax stories that would further polarize them, such as articles about dangerous immigrants raping and pillaging their way through America, or Hillary Clinton secretly selling munitions to ISIS.

 

Although conservative American voters were proven to be victims of data mining and identity manipulation in 2016, liberal American voters were victims during Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign through a Facebook app that reached millions of users. It is important to remember that everyone is potentially susceptible to identity manipulation. Almost everyone uses internet technology; therefore everyone has a data profile produced from that use. This means that we are all being constantly marketed to, based on our individual identities.

 

This creates a troubling dilemma. If everyone is being told exactly what they want to hear, then what do we believe? What is the truth? Is there even such a thing as truth anymore? And most importantly, how much of our identity really comes from within?

 

I believe the answer to this lies in education and developing the skills to critically evaluate all the technology and media that we use. We must become active consumers with the ability to not only question everything we think we know, but also have the competence to seek the truth.

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