Hacking a more profound truth

Last week, 150 countries were held to ransom by the software virus ‘Wannacry’. Microsoft (whose operating systems were infected on millions of computers) warned governments around the world should treat the incident as a “wakeup call.”

‘Wannacry’ led to UK’s national health service experiencing the worst cyber-panic attack in its history. Reportedly, over sixty NHS trusts were infected by the virus extorting up to $300 (£230) before restoring crucial personal health files. But blackmail was the least of its problems.

The British National Health Service (NHS) is barely coping with increased demands on its talented teams and vital resources. One particular area of concern is mental health. (Which coincidently was recently marked by #mentalhealthawarenessweek).

Just as life is what happens to you whilst you are making other plans, mental health is totally indiscriminate in terms of who it affects. One common thread (of several) which connects people is perception of the self and others – as broadly influenced by society.

During 2015, 6,188 people committed suicide in the UK. Males aged 45 to 59 had the highest suicide rate of 22.3 deaths per 100,000 population. (Female suicides were at their highest for a decade). A 2017 survey commissioned by the Varkey Foundation found that, what with poorly paid jobs and uncertain futures, along with 24/7 exposure to ‘awesome’ alternative existences, the UK’s 15-21 year olds suffer some of the poorest mental wellbeing in the world. In terms of stress and anxiety, only Japanese millennials rank lower than UK millennials.

Overworked. Overwhelmed. Undervalued.

If someone trying to figure out where, why or how they fit in the world reaches the end of their tether but can be saved... and assuming an initial diagnosis suggests he or she is not severely psychotic… the NHS will offer for a couple of home visits from local health workers who will eventually log details into the health system, as well as arrange for visit to a psychiatrist. With up to two years waiting list for one-to-one psychotherapy to talk through deeper feelings, the majority will be left to their own devices with little more support than either:

  1. a juggled blend of ‘mother’s little helpers’.

  2. a DIY set of instructions for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

  3. directions to a downloadable app on mindfulness.

  4. a card featuring an NHS’ crisis line.

  5. a recommendation to become a Zen Buddhist.

  6. a YouTube extended calming music mix.

Clearly the system is unbalanced (with no disrespect intended to Zen Buddhists). As with all major sectors, it is has painted itself into a corner of becoming almost totally reliant on hi-tech processes… which got me thinking … given that clearly (as in the USA) the UK economy cannot afford to invest in personal treatment and, given people’s propensity to instinctively turn to tech, could we be reaching the point that the government decides to turn to an already accessible tool that is literally in front of you - right now ?

Ask to seek yourself

According to IDC Digital Universe around 8 trillion gigabytes of data were created and shared digitally worldwide in 2015. Within five years that same figure will be reached daily.

Google’s query box is firmly part and parcel of our lives. We trust it. Familiarity and availability has ensured the semiotic oblong has become the first place we instinctively turn towards for answers to just about anything. Three and half billion searches per day (1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide) reveal conscious as well as unconscious desires, fears, prejudices, fantasies and much more. Hidden drives that could otherwise take months or even years in psychotherapy to uncover can, in seconds - with a little applied mathematics - be touched upon (not treated). (A thought that is perhaps as equally uplifting as it is disturbing).

Google’s box is the modern Carl Rogers; treating us with unconditional albeit passive, positive regard. It asks nothing of us but invites us to ask everything of ourselves. It reflects what we are privately thinking – as opposed to openly saying. Inner-questions liberate us to reveal truths that would otherwise leave us publically naked. From erotica to bigotries, neuroses to insecurities, Google’s oblong box puts entire societies including nations, capitals, cities, towns, villages and communities on the couch.

Reading between the lies

We live in a world where lying is lauded. Whether it is lying at work, to spouses, children, tax officers, social media, electorates, neighbours, friends, on dating sites, in questionnaires… and above all to ourselves…faking has become the cornerstone of how we live and who we are. From resumes to negotiating deals, faking has become a commonplace life-skill.

Lies are often the offspring of how we imagine we should be according to what we believe others are. Supporting those mendacities, products and services define us – suggesting and reinforcing the brand stories we whisper to ourselves in our heads.

Prefabricated branded assurances promise to put us in touch with authentic feelings, destinies and narratives. “Drink this brand and feel united…” “Drive this car and reclaim control…” “Own this product and stay ahead....” The number one game in the town for brands is to suggest that rather than sell, brands are in business to deliver authenticity and connectedness.

One recent odious example of a brand attempting to equate its message to authenticity is McDonalds. A recent commercial went as far as suggesting that a bereaved son who had lost his father could always find solace and a sense of self by going along to his local McDonald's and ordering a fish burger (his late father’s favourite fast food bun).

Just as we max-out credit cards, so we fill Google’s rectangular open grave with shovelfuls of countless questions. The hole fills answers to what we truly feel, whilst at the same time, its four-sided wall insulates us against what we are compelled to publicly claim. Such discerning search data tells us more about ourselves than we often care to admit to ourselves. For example, according to author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz who has worked as an analyst at Google, the top search in India beginning, “My husband wants…” is, “My husband wants me to breastfeed him.”

Taming paranoia

Take the increasingly ‘normalised’ incidents of terrorist attacks linked to Islam. Following an attack, one of the first things politicians will do is publically state that any individual attack does not reflect the true essence of Islam - as followed peacefully by millions around the world.

When former President Obama addressed the consequences of a Muslim terrorist shooting in San Bernardino, California, he urged the American people not “to turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam… because when we travel down that road, we lose.”

During the main part of his speech, the top Google search term in California incorporating the word “Muslims” was “kill Muslims.” At the same rate that they searched for “martini recipe,” and “migraine symptoms”, much of the rest of America also Googled the phrase “kill Muslims”. Drawing on weekly Google data from 2004 to 2013, the New York Times reported a direct correlation between anti-Muslim searches and anti-Muslim hate crimes.

So, despite the general media reporting that Obama’s response was measured, open-minded and inclusive – Google searches suggested that in terms of his goal to calm an angry mob inflamed by the terrorist attack, everything he said backfired. In fact, according to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, during the week when President Obama was initially elected, Google saw one of the biggest increase in numbers of discriminatory –related searches in the entire history of Google searches for racist material. On the night that President Obama was elected in 2009, along with all the Google searches that included the word, “Obama” one per cent also included either the ‘N-word’, or, “KKK”. And rather than most of the racist searches coming from ‘the usual suspect’ areas of America’s deep South, the number one state making the search was West Virginia, followed by (western) Pennsylvania, (eastern) Ohio, Michigan and upstate New York.

Social Desirability bias

Social Science researchers are familiar with a predisposition called, ‘social desirability bias’. Respondents answer surveys in such a way that others will view their replies favourably. So, for example, respondents could emphasis good behaviour or play down undesirable behaviour. As widely reported, social desirability bias played a hugely significant role in the polls leading up to the election of the 45th US president.

More broadly, areas typically affected by partisan Socially Desirable Responding (SDR) include

questions about how people rate self-abilities, personality or their sexual prowess, or frequency of drug use.

In open surveys, often people are not personally motivated to reveal the complete truth, whereas private online questions can be more accurate. This is particularly the case when submitting questions in Google’s confession box. (I believe the implications of this are well worth exploring).

For example, let’s return to anti-Muslim Google searches rising when former President Obama tried to calm down the angry mob following the San Bernardino attack. In the last few minutes of his speech Obama changed tack to talk about how many Muslims were American sporting heroes… friends… neighbours…co-workers… men and women in uniform - willing to die in defence of America. At that point, instead of Google being asked about “Muslim terrorists” it started to receive questions related to “Muslim athletes” and “Muslim soldiers”. Those queries kept pouring in – for well over a week after Obama’s speech.

As in all good psychotherapy, instead of lecturing people about angst, people were ‘nudged’ into finding answers to bigger questions – for themselves. Google was provoking that most basic and empowering of all human conditions – curiosity.

Google searches are unquestionably directly associated with real world behaviours. Studies suggest that Google searches for “suicide” correlate highly with actual suicides – far higher than surveys for suicide.

Talk to your therapist

Whilst I remain sceptical that the web is the ‘as advertised’ utopian unifier for all mankind, evidence suggests that Google (and eventually listening search devices such as Amazon’s Echo Dot or the forthcoming Apple version of talk and listen devices) could turn out to be the world’s biggest mirror - reflecting not simply superficial selfies, but what people actually feel in their souls. And that could turn out to be a vital wakeup call in changing technology from holding us hostage, to freeing deeper thinking and liberating troubled minds.

Jonathan Gabay


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