Google and The Red Queen – An Essay By Extropia DaSilva


And what might occur if digital intermediaries use that power in the service of Google’s other main purpose, which is advertisement? We saw earlier how information on the Web can be divided up into ‘low-level information’ and ‘high-level knowledge’. This is just as true of reality itself, and a lot of unconscious brain activity is devoted to filtering information gathered by our senses and deciding what is important enough  to be brought into consciousness. Stephen Quartz, from the California Institute of Technology, has run experiments in which volunteers watch movie trailers while undergoing a brain scan. Doing so can provide a clue as to how well the trailer will be remembered, by revealing whether activity around the hippocampus and other areas crucial for storing new impressions in long-term memory light up. According to Lone Frank, author of the book ‘Mindfields: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World’, “Quartz would like to refine his methods to the point where they can say something about what is characteristic about a given stimulus and what the brain takes special notice of… Greater knowledge about what kind of activity patterns determine which details slip through could lead to the development of a trailer according to what is most likely to be remembered”.

Quartz himself has commented, “my big interest is how the brain represents value… how it learns to make predictions about what yields a reward. I mean, one of the great watersheds of human development was the brain’s ability to recognise value not just in the form of utility, but also in the form of social value”. One of the great challenges for marketing is the fact that most of the products being advertised are not really valuable- at least, not in the sense of being necessary for survival. This fact was pointed out in an essay written in 1970 by Daniel Bell called ‘The Cultural Contradiction Of Capitalism’. Our economy was created to feed our lifestyles rather than our bellies. Obviously, food, drink and shelter remain as important now as they were in the past. But, (in the West at least) we have such an abundance of produce that we do not concern ourselves with where the next meal is coming from; instead we are concerned with brands. What is a brand? According to Quartz, “functionally, modern products are uniform. They do the same thing… [a brand] is a social distinction we are creating, since there is no difference in the product”.

Well, perhaps that comes as no surprise. After all, it is no secret that branding influences our choices and shopping habits by constructing a whole mental universe around some physical thing. But, neuromarketing is now revealing the power of brands to change the way we comprehend sense impressions.  The classic example is cola. In an experiment conducted by Read Montague of Houstan’s Baylor College, it was proved that Pepsi Cola tastes better than Coca-Cola. How was such a thing proved? By having volunteers taste the two without knowing which was which and then judging which was best. Pepsi was the clear winner. Also, brain scans showed Pepsi set off greater activity in the ventral putamen, an area which (among other things) is a component of the reward system.

So, Pepsi is objectively better than Coca-Cola. However, the latter far outsells its rival and most people swear it is the superior taste. When Montague repeated the taste test (but this time with both drinks clearly labelled) the same volunteers who had previously judged Pepsi to be best now changed their minds — literally. Brain scans now revealed activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, areas involved in how we relate to ourselves and to who we are. Lone Frank commented, “the product that actually tasted worse… was viewed as better when the whole identification apparatus and the idea ‘this is so me’ when into action”.

This is not just limited to Coca-Cola, but to all brands that people judge to be ’cool’. Show someone a picture of such a product, and brain scans will show activity in areas associated with self-evaluation, self-representation and self-identity. As Quartz said, “this fits in well with the idea that the individual product has to be incorporated in some way into your social self. So when you are making assessments, you’re thinking of yourself in social situations with the product and of how it influences your status and other people’s view of you”.

All of which points to a ‘double-whammy’ in search engines’ ongoing efforts to determine ‘who you are; what you are like’. On the hardware side of things, Vinge’s digital gaia scenario foresees microprocessors embedded in most — if not all — physical products. Imagine the metadata that could be obtained by combining information about the kinds of brands a person prefers with geo-tagged snapshots and what books or magazines he or she favours and what passages from any particular publication interests him or her and what seems to be a turn-off. Then imagine adding the software side of things — what music they prefer to download and listen to, all  tweets, blog posts and comments, all search queries…

The ‘software’ side of things might also refer to the software of the mind. According to Marco Iacaboni of the University of California, “I’m sure there is brain activity that, in reality, is better at predicting people’s behaviour than any statement they make themselves”. Currently, brain scans are only suggestive of the underlying activity. FMRI scans show us where activity is occurring in the brain, but not the precise details of how such activity translates into perception, behaviour and memory. But, recall the work of the Blue Brain Project and how “we can trace back every molecule, every cell, every connection and see how the memory was formed”. One day, computer simulations like these may  greatly facillitate our understanding of brain dynamics and underlying mechanisms.

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