You have Free Will, correct?

Most, if not all of us like to think that, as intelligent, sentient beings, we have the capacity to exercise Free Will in our lives, both professional and personal. At Awbury, we take no position as a business on religious or political matters; and firmly believe that these are matters for the individual.

However, we are beginning to wonder whether we should all be rather more careful when considering how we may be being manipulated subconsciously, when using tools that are now a fundamental part of our lives, both professional and personal.

As we have mentioned before, some of the Awbury team can remember a time when personal computers and the Internet did not exist; and research was actually a physical experience, involving books, libraries and newspapers, and talking to people. Those days are long gone; and now we can “Google” for information, or read it via any number of competing “apps”. EDGAR is a wonderful thing!

Even though it is not exactly a secret, the dominance of Google’s search algorithms has a potentially insidious effect on thought processes and behaviours. However, what prompted our giving further expression to our concerns, was a fascinating article in “Politico” by a respected research psychologist, Robert Epstein, entitled: “How Google Could Rig the 2016 election”; whose content should give any reader pause for thought.

In essence, Mr. Epstein argues (based upon rigorous experiment and analysis) that Google (or “Alphabet”) has now amassed more power and influence than Western Union in 1876 (sic)- read the article- in terms of managing and directing the political process- because of its control over what is termed the “Search Engine Manipulation Effect”, or SEME, and the demonstrable impact of search engine rankings on actual behaviours. Because Google tweaks it search algorithms frequently, but in secret, it is hard, if not impossible, to discern how the changes it makes affect search results or rankings.

What was disturbing about the experiments that Mr. Epstein and his colleagues conducted was that key factors such as trust, liking and voting preferences could demonstrably be shifted by manipulating the outcomes of the searches that those participating were asked to undertake about political candidates.

And there is a certain Orwellian quality to Google’s official response on SEME (as quoted by Mr. Epstein): “Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google’s approach to search from the very beginning. It would undermine the people’s trust in our results and company if we were to change course.” The “the” is a nice touch… They would say that, wouldn’t they?

Of course, reason would also dictate that it would be detrimental to the company’s interests to use its capabilities and reach to manipulate an outcome; but bear in mind that this is the company that auctions ad rankings for search results; and most of whose processes are deliberately obscured- while corporates collectively spend billions on influencing political decisions.

By now, Dear Reader, you are probably wondering: “But what does this have to do with the world of (re)insurance? Isn’t this all a bit arcane- and paranoid to boot?”

Well, consider this: if you rely (as most of us do, in the West at least) on Google as the initial source of much information (at least as a screen), what a search produces and how the results are ranked cannot help but have an influence upon how you view a particular question or issue and, therefore, on underwriting and risk management decisions. Search engines are now inextricably part of how information is obtained; but that does not mean that we have to take what they produce as responses at face value. Reading the fine print and the detail still matters, as does verifying authenticity and provenance; and having a suitably questioning and skeptical mind.

So, be careful what you search for; and how.

The Awbury Team

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