Responsibility, Accountability and “The Selfish Ledger”

Last week, a story was published on The Verge that gave an inside look at a thought experiment by Nick Foster from Google called ‘The Selfish Ledger’. I would recommend reading the article and viewing the actual video that was produced to convey the idea: https://www.theverge.com/2018/5/17/17344250/google-x-selfish-ledger-video-data-privacy

If you prefer a summary, the thought experiment shows how the aggregate of online digital trails that we all leave behind could be used to guide and shape the behaviour of society as a whole. Please keep in mind that this is just a thought experiment, not a real product or strategy from Google (yet).

I’ll leave the topics of privacy and the commodification of user data to others to discuss. What jumped out at me from the article and video presentation was the mention of life goals in a conceptual system called “Resolutions by Google”. Upon a user selecting a goal, Google “guides them toward it in every interaction they have with their phone.” What I found unsettling was the mention that the examples that would be presented to the user would “reflect Google’s values as an organization”.

As a Life Skills Coach in-training (and I will be certified by the end of June 2018 from George Brown College along with my amazing classmates), I’ve come to learn how important the process of self-discovery is for personal growth. Life Skills Coaching is all about creative problem solving to help individuals manage their personal & professional lives accountably and responsibly. When we begin to offload that responsibility to others, or a company, the power & control we have to shape our own lives diminishes.

I’ve seen articles published over the past years that discuss the merits of disclosing your emotions & needs to an objective technical bot or service. The argument is that we are more honest and true to our behaviours when interacting with technology than we are when interacting with people. While it may be easier to disclose to a non-judgmental device, we lose the opportunity for growth, trust, empathy & vulnerability. All of these things require effort & work – they aren’t always comfortable or easy. But like physical activity, they’re like “muscles” you train and it does get easier. Having been part of the tech industry for the majority of my career, I understand how easy it is to become enamoured with the latest technology but I also have come to appreciate the need to step back and ask “why?” before jumping in.

As well, we potentially lose the opportunity to have a real connection with a person if we were to choose a technological substitute. I would imagine that over time, real interactions with people would become more challenging and likely something that would be avoided in the most extreme cases. Again, while it may be easier instead of interacting with a person, the effort made to be accountable & responsible for your own actions & behaviours will lead to more rewarding growth & understanding.

I recently developed a Lesson Plan on understanding stress and one of the sources that I cited was Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk called “How to make stress your friend” (https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend). She noted that the hormone oxytocin is released as part of our stress response. (So, I’m not a doctor – I don’t even play one online, so caveat emptor.) She explained that oxytocin motivates us to seek out support and has other healing benefits to our cardiovascular system. So if being vulnerable with people and digging into your fears & motivations elevates your stress level, actually seeking out real support from people around you may be the better path to take instead of isolating yourself.

As Life Skills Coaches, our opportunity is to forge real connections with people who want to change their behaviour and find options for acting responsibly & accountably in their lives. For the average person, the opportunity is to really learn about yourself, your motivations, your intentions, your triggers and fears. Yes – it’s work and it can be challenging, but the outcome is that you will be more empowered to make decisions and understand how to more effectively interact and empathize with those around you. You will be better equipped to act responsibly & accountably for your own path.

And there isn’t an app for that.