The paranoid style in IT journalism

There’s a type of technology journalism which is the non-fiction equivalent of a horror story, the opposite of uncritical technophilia. Scaring readers is a pretty good way to hold their attention, but it doesn’t necessarily get to the heart of the story.

Earlier this month, The Register published my piece on Cambridge Analytica and its targeted political advertising based on online psychometric profiling. The company does itself no favours by not responding to questions, but I did speak to academic Michal Kosinski, who according to a widely-read article in Swiss publication Das Magazin (republished by Vice’s Motherboard section) ended up racked with guilt at having developed ideas in this area which Cambridge Analytica has since exploited.

Kosinki said the earlier article had not misquoted him, but that he didn’t share all the authors’ opinions. He then built an optimistic case that online psychometric profiling could actually strengthen democracy, and suggested that universities like Cambridge could use the technique to find applicants rather than relying on qualifications that correlate with parental spending on education.

You can disagree with his views, but they are intriguing and hardly those of someone who feels he has loosed a monster on the world.

It’s quite easy to write in the paranoid style, and sometimes it’s justified. But often things are more complicated – and more interesting – than it tends to suggests.

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