Book Review: Mindf*ck

Mindf*ck: Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World

Mindf*ck
Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World

Christopher Wylie

In 2016, an obscure British military contractor turned the world upside down. Funded by a billionaire on a crusade to start his own far-right insurgency, Cambridge Analytica combined psychological research with private Facebook data to make an invisible weapon with the power to change what voters perceived as real.

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Why I read this book?

During 2018/19, I was developing an Artificial Intelligence based project, something I had never done before and also an area that was entirely new me. I had no real formative Data Science skills, other than I knew a lot about Database systems and strong API development and integration skills and understood a little about algorithms.

Data Science and Artificial Intelligence (AI), in my opinion is a whole different world in software development, although there is certainly a quite a bit of cross-over it does not necessarily mean because you are good in either of disciplines it is easy for one to cross-over. I found this out within the first couple of weeks, when I found myself having to learn whole heap of different concepts, terminology, paradigms and even ways of thinking.

I also discovered that AI depends on data, lots and lots of data! The Data Science aspect, is about transforming that data to become meaningful information. It is also largely about building tools and integration to extract, transform and load data to transform it into meaningful models that can be used to build the AI.

I discovered that this can also be somewhat of shady dark underworld when it comes to collation of data. Data is collected everywhere and depending on where you look one can accumulate data. There is also a lot effort that goes into matching various disjointed datasets to formulate complete cohesive picture of the subject at hand.

In some instances, I found it quite alarming at just how much data and information can be collated about a subject. For instance, if you were able to get a CV or Resume of a person, that had a link to their Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn profiles, one could almost build an entire picture of their life, associations, friends etc.

Personally, I found it quite alarming at just how easy it was for literally anybody could quite easily get any information about you in a matter of seconds.

What I like about this book?

Although, a lot of detail on which this book is based was widely circulated in the media in circa 2018, there was also heaps of misinformation and fake news attributed to it. Wylie takes the opportunity provided in this book to offer both more forensic detail and insight into the psychological mechanisms at play in this wildly successful alt-right effort to use AI tools and proven propaganda methods to radicalise segments of the US & UK populations to influence their voting intentions. 

It details just how social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reditt etc need to accept responsibility for their contribution to the corruption of democracies across the globe. It also raises the awareness of the methods involved in modern big-tech-enhanced information warfare is essential to inoculate the citizens of a democracy against emotional manipulation. 

I also found it an interesting to note the involvement of Palantir Technologies, a super secretive Palo Alto, Calif.-based company, in the affair. Palantir, the company owned by Peter Thiel whose book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future I have previously reviewed.

As you may also know Peter Thiel, was also one of the major backers behind Donald Trump in the 2016 election. He has also confirmed that he will not be backing him in the 2020 election.

Palantir was originally funded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). After failing to make any headway with venture capital investors in 2003, the fledgling firm secured a $2 million investment from In-Q-Tel, a venture investment firm setup by the CIA.  $30 million seed money for the company came from Peter Thiel.

Palantir’s counter-terrorism software, lets intelligence analysts quickly find answers to complex questions without writing code or mastering statistical modelling.

In 2010 then-vice president Joe Biden credited Palantir software for helping analysts at the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board uncover fraud. A year later, CIA analysts used the same platform to find, track and ultimately kill Osama bin Laden.

Zero to One

Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

In Zero to One, legendary entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel shows how we can find singular ways to create those new things.

Pete Thiel

Palantir operates in 40 countries, and now has two additional platforms. Metropolis is being used by hedge funds and other financial institutions to find and exploit market inefficiencies. And Foundry was designed for use by enterprises.

Wylie discusses how Palantir took an interest in Cambridge Analytica, it appears that Palantir staff were routinely visiting Cambridge Analytica’s offices.

Some of the staff working at Palantir realised that Facebook has the potential to become the best discreet surveillance tool imaginable for the NSA – that is, if that data was freely volunteered by another entity

Chistopher Wylie – Mindf*ck

There obviously would be no coincidence that Peter Thiel has then proceeded to dump 80% of his remaining stock in Facebook. It’s probably obvious that Facebook has now served its purpose for Palantir and it wishes to completely cut its ties.

One should remember that Palantir’s tools  include combing through cellphone records, financial documents, airline reservation systems and social media files. This, along with other disparate data sources, can build extremely detailed profiles on individuals and organizations.

Reading Mindf*ck, will paint a very clear picture why, this in many contexts can be considered evil and it’s utility in reality is questionable.

The final chapter of this book – titled Epilogue – raises some really interesting and valid points which all working in the software industry should definitely consider. Which I think can truly be summarised by the following key quote

Why should you be allowed to release untested products before you understand their potential consequences for society ?

Christopher Wylie – Mindf*ck

It also contains some proposals and points for consideration that all software development professionals should consider. Aspects regarding the establishment of a code of ethics we should all ascribe too and consider

Why I recommend this book

This book is, in my opinion, a really well-written autobiography that reads more like a spy thriller! However, it could also be classified as a coming of age story detailing a naive computer geek’s journey through temptation, hell, and redemption at the highest levels of wealth and power.

If you’ve read George Orwells 1984, then you really should read this book, because one will easily identify that this book could easily be the start of the dystopian fiction future which that book was set in!

Mindf*ck is well worth reading if you’re interested in some of the bigger questions of the day: elections, data; Russian interference and Steve Bannon’s power plays in global politics.

Personally, this book has made me rethink my relationship with the internet and Social Media in general. I think Social Media has lost all it’s utility in our day to day lives and advertising in general has now truly become one of the greater evils of modern society.

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