Friday, February 17, 2012

Tell me what I think I already know

There's a very useful concept in economics and behavioral research that you're hopefully already aware of: confirmation bias. In a nutshell, confirmation bias is your tendency (and mine, I'm not pointing fingers here) to selectively accept information that confirms opinions that you already hold. Confirmation bias is why global warming seems so obvious to Democrats and so obviously wrong to Republicans. When new evidence comes out confirming global warming trends, those who already accept that global warming is a fact will nod in agreement, while those who think it is a fraud will think that this is just the latest deception. Confirmation bias is one of the primary reasons why we're not as rational and objective as we think we are, because we have a strong tendency only to listen to what we want to hear.

Enter this morning's big story: Google (and others), the WSJ reports, has been using a hack to trick mobile Safari into circumventing the iPhone's default security settings, so that they can track user info in ways that the user has not authorized. When the WSJ contacted Google about this practice, Google abruptly stopped tracking this information, and it's no wonder. What Google was doing was (probably) not illegal, but it was certainly sneaky, underhanded, and borderline unethical.

Except if you're John Battelle, in which case it's all Apple's fault.

The Apple-Google rivalry is one of the most polarizing issues in technology today. Pretty much everyone who's paying attention has already picked a side. In short, this is a situation ripe for confirmation bias, and you couldn't ask for a better example than Battelle's take on the situation. It's all Apple's fault, he says, because the privacy settings on the iPhone are so extreme as to break web standards, it's arrogant of Apple to assume that users want that level of privacy (Battelle even goes to the point of arguing, somehow, that assuming you want your information private is the opposite of privacy), and Google is the victim because it's been forced to trick users into handing over information to which Google -- and others -- should be entitled.

This article, in a nutshell, is why tech journalism is in the toilet today: everyone has picked sides within the world's largest pissing match, and they're all preaching the gospel from their various pulpits. We readers selectively listen by subscribing to certain feeds, and the confirmation bias just gets deeper and deeper, until we arrive at the point of absurdity where someone will argue in a public forum that strict privacy settings are a violation of privacy.

Reporters were never as objective as they claimed to be, but if this is where journalism is headed, we're all screwed.