Monday, July 9, 2012

Conditions Apply

This is something which has been on my mind since quite some time and ever since I watched the SJ episode on doctor malpractices [1], I decided on blogging about it.

Most of us today signify a positive picture of the globalised world as we know it. We have utilised the growth of the internet coupled with the encouragement to develop a progressive approach in every sphere of life. We have democratized and personalized anything and everything we could. For example, we have minimised the barriers in accessing information with the internet, the electronic media and personal devices.

However, I feel that while basking in the glory of this information age, we ignore one fundamental disadvantage of such a system: We have started taking ideas/words/actions at face value. We have stopped questioning the authenticity of information sources and the motives of informants just because they come from big certified brands that make information available to us behind a facade of high end technology. To quote Thomas Freidman, from ‘The World is Flat’, on the drawbacks of the internet,
“The Internet is an enormously useful tool for the dissemination of propaganda, conspiracy theories, and plain old untruths; because it combines a huge reach with a patina of technology that makes anything on the Internet somehow more believable. ... The internet is more likely to transmit irrationality than rationality, because irrationality is more emotionally loaded, it requires less knowledge. ...  Young people used to have to take LSD to escape. Now they just go online and download the precise point of view that speaks to all their own biases.”
While the internet opened the gate of access to information, it now has a humungous pile of data of which we don’t know what to trust. While we often fall back onto well-known names for ‘trusted’ information, we never know when we might be betrayed. One of my professors once said when someone quoted Wikipedia, “How can you trust Wikipedia? It is something that anyone can edit.” While this statement seemed nonsensical then, it doesn’t seem so outrageous now because I realised that the biggest strength of Wikipedia and the internet (that anyone can edit it) is also a very big disadvantage.

The drawback mentioned above is not just limited to the internet. Information, by its very nature, can be inaccurate and biased. We, being its recipients ought not to ignore this just because we get the information in a gold wrapping.

Brainless ‘Facebook-will-contribute-a-dollar-for-every-share’ posts apart, this shortcoming takes on importance where our trust means actual money for someone else. I am not just talking of conspiracy theory/scam websites. I am talking of mainstream instances, which come with the glimmer of big official brands and high end expertise to gain our trust:
  • Doctors recommend us to buy a certain brands of medicine or have a certain surgery or go to a certain place for medical tests or second opinion. They tell us where and how to treat our illness.
  • The electronic news media, media websites and blogs on the internet tell us, “This happened and the other thing did not happen. X guy, Y organisation and Z company is doing a very good job and the others are not. These insurance strategies are doing very well and these are not.” 
  • Most high end research is published through peer reviewed journal papers. The reviewing groups decide what good research is and what isn’t. They allow/disallow publishing of papers saying something is excellent (say a healthy food product or a life enhancing medical drug or even a certain stock market strategy) and something else is not.
  • Rating agencies rate and inform us which products (movies, gadgets, medicines, toothbrushes etc.) are good and which aren’t. They tell us which is a good option to spend our money on and which is not. 
  • Millions of advertisements on TV, internet, radio, billboards etc tell us what to buy. They show how ‘years of continual research’ has helped them bring products that are the best for us.
All the above mentioned individuals/organisations are ‘certified’ to give us information we are not qualified enough to understand or that we are unable to obtain personally. I see nothing wrong in that. The problem arises when our trust in their authenticity is misused.

We have a problem if we are made to undergo surgeries we don’t need [1]. We have a problem if the media tells us something happened when it didn’t. A major con is to leak ‘official’ rumours about companies to gain stock value [2]. We have a problem if rating bodies rate products as ‘awesome’ or ‘safe’ when they aren’t. One of the biggest scams in the 2008 financial crisis was on the part of credit rating agencies [3]. We have a problem if journal papers tell us that only XYZ drug is good when there actually are many alternates. We have a problem if advertisements misuse neuromarketing techniques to sell products that aren’t what they seem [4]. Making a huge profit is not a crime, but we have a problem when we end up getting the raw end of the deal.

It all boils down to this: Where there are colossal sums of money to be earned by gaining our confidence, we can never be sure that there are no conflicts of interests involved. Stricter laws asking disclosure of interests in some cases may help. However, while using information, we cannot be certain about the motives of the informant in supplying us with information. Only thing we can do is think twice before trusting anything we come across.

I am not saying that we all should turn paranoid. We cannot survive today without putting some amount of faith on many unknown people. It is human nature to trust. But just like religious faith, we should be aware that this ‘informant’ faith has its disadvantages and can be misused. We should be aware that this informant faith, comes with ‘Conditions  Apply’ written in fine text at the bottom. Just as mutual funds advertisements on the radio gloss over the end part which states, “Mutual fund investments are subject to market risks. Please read the offer document carefully before investing”, most informants gloss over the ‘Conditions Apply’ term while providing us with information. The responsibility lies with us to be cautious about the ‘Conditions Apply’ term.


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