Guinea Pig Economy

Guinea Pig Economy January 26, 2015

It isn’t just Facebook. Over at, Parmy Olson explains how companies are not only gathering data from our computers and phones, but constantly subjecting us to tests. We have entered the Guinea Pig Economy, and everyone with an internet connection is part of the experiment:

“Consumers have been tracked, measured and prodded into action since the 1950s–psychology was, as any viewer of Mad Men recognizes, the very core of the modern advertising industry, with symbolism, doublespeak and anxiety deployed for the first time as commercial weapons. Now the proliferation of connected devices–smartphones, wearables, thermostats, autos–combined with powerful and integrated software spells a golden age of behavioral science. Data will no longer reflect who we are–it will help determine it. The emerging field is sometimes called Captology, short for Computers as Persuasive Technologies, as coined by Stanford computer scientist B.J. Fogg in 1996. A more cogent term for what has resulted: the Guinea Pig Economy.”

It’s not just Facebook, but the recent Facebook scandal did open a window on the subject: “Humans inherently don’t like being unwitting guinea pigs. Facebook learned that last year when it was revealed that in 2012 it had run a series of tests on its newsfeed. The so-called emotional contagion experiment manipulated the wording of around 700,000 users’ status updates to make them appear slightly sadder or happier than they were. The world, in turn, freaked out, provoking national editorials and government probes globally. The real concern wasn’t that Facebook had made a lot of people seem a little sadder; it was its initial indifference to the experiment and the likelihood this was the tip of a large iceberg we knew very little about. According to one report at the time, Facebook’s data science team had operated under relatively little oversight to run their experiment.” Other companies manipulate results to test their algorithms, use carrots and sticks to change user behavior, and in general run constant tests. 

You’re a guinea pig. Get used to it.

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