IN 2017 - behavioural economist Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his ground-breaking work on how people make irrational choices and how their behaviour can be modified to help them make better decisions.

Cass Sunstein and Thaler's book, NUDGE, open with an illustrative example of a women who experiments with the layout of food in cafeterias to help kids make healthy food choices - for example, placing carrots rather than French Fries at eye level.

Thaler's work was instrumental in exploring how public policy can be leveraged to manipulate human behaviour for better outcomes.

Governments around the world formed ''nudge units'' to prod their citizens towards making better decisions - from quitting cigarettes to reducing energy consumption.

However, detractors, fearing the encroachment of the state into their personal lives, criticized the idea of nudges as a policy instrument for promoting government paternalism, infantilising people diminishing autonomy.

Thaler's applications of nudging seem well-intentioned - notwithstanding the psychological manipulation aspect - when compared to the greater threat we now confront : the nefarious and convert behaviour modification we are constantly subject to as we interact with digital technology.

At some point, most of us have wondered whether the microphones on our devices are spying on us. For example, shortly after discussing a particular clothing store with a friend, an advertisemment for that very store has popped up on your Facebook newsfeed.

This is not so much proof that our devices are recording our conversations, but rather that BIG TECH has collected such vast and comprehensive data on us - the website we visit, what we like and comment on, our physical locations, how long we spent inside a particular store or restaurant, what we search for on Google, the apps we use, the list is endless - that they are now able to predict out thoughts and behaviour with terrifying accuracy.

In the last few years, Facebook and Google have become notorious for this practice. As their business model centres on advertising revenue, they collect user data and use it to target personalised advertisements.

There have been countless protests, investigations, lawsuits, and US Senate hearings highlighting this issues, but little real progress has been made on protecting user privacy and autonomy.

SO, what is the endgame for the technology sector, and why is the data it has collected so precious?

Harvard Business School's Shoshana Zuboff quotes a senior software engineer as saying : ''The real power is that now you can modify real-time actions in the real world.''

The goal is not just to use data to find patterns and predict behaviour, but ultimately to modify behaviour.

This behaviour modification can be to increase advertising revenue by getting more clicks, drive more sales with targeted advertisements, sway public opinion on policy issues or manipulate electoral outcomes.

The honor and serving of the latest global operational research on 'The behavior change industry,' continues to Part 2.. The World Students Society thanks author Anum Malkani,  -a development practitioner.


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