Foundation (Foundation, #1) Foundation question


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Big data vs. Psychohistory
Lis Katrine Albers Lis Katrine Jun 04, 2018 10:17AM
So I am sure you have all noticed the big drama that has been happening the past couple of months, about not only Facebook giving away people's data to companies like Cambridge Analytica, but other websites as well. Everyone has received a hundred emails about updated privacy policy from like... every website they have ever clicked on.

Well I was reading Asimov's Foundation trilogy not too long ago, and I noticed that this whole data scandal carried some resemblance to the idea of psychohistory. Both are used to try and predict what people will do.

Now, admittedly there are som differences. Psychohistory is used only to predict the actions of masses, and does not account for individuals, like Data does. Psychohistory is a very complex science, which requires many skileld scientists, Big Data is mostly done by algorithms on computers. Also, Psychohistory is a made up concept. For now anyway.

But in both cases we have a smaller group of people trying to predict the actions of a bigger group of people. Hari Seldon and his team (later followed by the Second Foundation) were trying to figure out how they could manipulate people to do the actions they wanted them to. In this case, Seldon has noble intentions and wants the people to act in a certain way to shorten an era of chaos in the universe.

Seldon was working with big groups and could not take inidividuals into consideration. While he continued to guide the people through "videos" (or holograms or whatever) after his death, it was the people themselves, though mostly their representatives (can someone say politicians?) who made the actual decisions about what to do in these so called crises.

Now the thing that sets Data apart from Psychohistory is that it CAN predict the actions of individuals. Data will know that everyone on this website is interested in books. It can then predict that users from this website might be more susceptible to click on ads featuring books. Of course it gets way more complicated than that. I am not an expert, I just read stuff.

The slightly more interesting thing about Data is how it can be used to predict actions of a bigger group of people. Like how people will vote in an upcoming election. This is actually exactly what Cambridge Analytica has used Data for. Other things too, but this was one that was very talked about.

By collecting informations about the little clicks you make with your mouse at home, this company can use math to determine your political orientation. They can sell this information to political organizations who can then use it to manipulate not only the ads you see, but some people also claim they could change your opinion on certain subjects.

Supposedly they do this by showing you stories, ads, pictures etc. that are pro-whatever they are pro. By using math to determine what comes up in your feed they can slowly change how you feel about a certain topic. At least that is what I have read.

But didn't Hari Seldon do the exact same thing?

Hari Seldon used Psychohistory to determine what needed to be done to nudge people towards the path he had chosen for them. Supposedly, this was a path of towards better times, but in the entirety of the trilogy, we never find out if it actually works.

The time period that Sheldon intends to shorten is one of chaos between the reigns of two galactic empires. Seldon believes that if people follow his plan, the period of bad times will be over quicker, than if they did not. Which is a great thing. He helps them by appearing to them whenever there is a crisis to guide them through it. He makes the people do what he thinks is best.

But imagine what Psychohistorians could do, if they did not have such noble intentions. Saving people from suffering is something almost everyone can agree on. But what if it was something else? Could he have manipulated people to do something different? Nudged them in another direction? What if he for some reason wanted to extend the period of chaos?

More importantly, what if there were more Psychohistorians who were as smart as Seldon, who each tried to manipulate people in different ways? Or what if there were people who bought Seldons information to manipulate people to perform actions that were profitable for them, but not for the people?

Political organizations all want the best for their people, but they have such different ideas of what this "best" is. Look at how much political drama takes place in just YOUR country. In any country. Can you imagine trying make a whole galaxy agree?

The only reason Psychohistory works out, and is not a scandal, is because it is used for good. Being able to predict what people will do, or having th ability to manipulate large crowds is a power in itself. Power will almost certainly end up in the wrong hands some times.

If any political organization used science to manipulate people into believing in the organization's values, to manipulate them into changing their minds, and to perform certain actions, wouldn't that be scandalous? Wouldn't there be a big debate about the ethical issues?

But wait, isn't this already happening?



You have raised a very interesting view of Asimov's writing. I am always amazed by his writing when applied to the social reality of this age. I recently finished reading The End of Eternity and drew similar parallels to how we as a civilization tend to keep rewriting our pasts in order to always keep us within our safezones.

More interestingly, pointing to the whole government spy projects inplace today, I am reminded of his short story The Dead Past. It amazed me how he forsaw the social problems which are a consequence of technology. At times, I feel, it is our duty to have these debates much early on before technology can do any harm to humanity.

Well, I do not have an answer to the questions you have raised. But, certainly believe that we have the tools to discuss, debate, and regulate applications of technology in a way that promotes human rights. Put in Asimov's words: " A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm".


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