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Hacking humans – welcome to the new frontier

Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, among others, makes a powerful commencement speech in this recent video. As a Dharma Hacker I subscribe to the view that we are hackable. It’s how its done and to what end that is important. Some more thoughts on that and the video, in addition to what I have already written.

How close this new frontier? In many cases it’s already arrived. Yuval refers to platforms, like Google and Facebook (my reference not his), that are already able to determine our likes and dislikes, personality traits, etc. They do this by observing our actions online. They build a picture of us and use this to target activities, some would say manipulate and influence, like getting us to buy, read, share or subscribe to certain things. That is a pretty clear definition of hacking in my view. Our minds are the playground in this sense.

The range of options – from Hacking Humans Roundtable Discussion

That does not tap into our emotions just yet. For that we need biometric surveillance. It’s spoken about as if we don’t have a choice. As if governments and corporations are going to attach sensors to us against our will. Brutal dictatorships aside, we do have a choice though. The gist of his message to students is to always ensure and enshrine that choice.

The quantified self is a movement. Many are willingly quantifying themselves in the pursuit of health and wellness and for other reasons. Think of the many health bands and trackers that are logging our movements, heart rate, emotions, etc. Data is being collected. Surveillance would be possible if those collecting or had access to it, had less than scrupulous intent. This is all being done wilfully, in ignorance even.

It’s not all bad

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Microsoft’s MyAnalytics (disclosure) is a personal productivity tool that is intended to track your habits and help steer you to better habits, by identifying and correcting bad ones. Not quite hacking but not miles away from the concept I explained here: Dharma Hacker – An Overview.

I love this approach which is filled with good intentions – see Compliance and Ethics at Microsoft, recognised by many as world leading and highly credible. I use this all the time to help me with my personal productivity. Microsoft take MyAnalytics further with WorkPlace Analytics, which is the organisational view of individual productivity.

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Another approach I take is with the Forest App and meditation. As you can see from the screenshot, I use it to log all my meditation sessions. Besides successfully planting virtual trees and bushes, I’m able to track the amount of time I meditate through some of the reports. I’ve tried HeadSpace and it doesn’t allow for tracking of meditation time. Mapping time spent meditating with my moods and mental wellbeing would be the next step which is something I do manually at the moment. I’m hacking my mental health by meditating. Direct experience shows me it works – relational evidence would be awesome.

It all comes down to awareness and choice. Yuval alludes to the latter but does not offer the path. My view is mediation creates awareness of the choices I make every day. It helps ensure that I act in my own best interest before I act mindlessly on negative things. Like too much time on social media, giving permission to others to access my personal data without thinking, etc.

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