California Forum

Every click tells Silicon Valley something about you. Press B if that’s not OK.

A/B testing is making the internet more individualized and user friendly. It’s also gathering data on you, with every click. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)
A/B testing is making the internet more individualized and user friendly. It’s also gathering data on you, with every click. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File) AP

Choose one.

A: Test me all night long, baby.

Sign me up to be the subject of A/B testing. I’ll sign a blanket consent so Silicon Valley’s biggest brains can test me for the purpose of improving the human future.

You’ve likely been A/B tested without your knowledge if you’ve ever used Google or Facebook. With A/B testing, different users are given different variants of a website or an email or a purchasing button to test what small changes online make you more likely to click, read or buy something. If you’re reading this online, you could be being A/B tested right now – with different readers seeing different headlines and the responses measured.

This is good. A/B tests, conducted repeatedly and carefully, allow for refinements and improvements in our designs, our interfaces and our products. Google has optimized its globe-dominating search business via such testing. Facebook, too, is devoted to A/B testing to refine its site. On the other side is Snap, which doesn’t like to make constant adjustments. Is that why Snap is facing such challenges in keeping users?

We should demand even more from A/B testing. The human race must improve many systems – energy, food, water, even governance – if we’re to avoid self-inflicted disasters, from climate change to wars. Why not commit to a culture of continuous optimization in the real world, not just the virtual?

B: I am not your test subject, baby.

I don’t want to be Silicon Valley’s guinea pig. But my online time is now given over to companies experimenting on me to get me to make choices revealing which variables will change my behavior online. I’m a dystopian lab rat forced to design the maze – and the reward – that will entrap me.

What do I get in return? Facebook tells me its free services are my compensation, but studies also tell me spending more time on Facebook – the goal of many of their experiments – makes me less happy. Sadness is not a method of payment I accept.

Such testing has created an unacknowledged ethical and health crisis. The more we click, the more we’re tested. If experiments show how to make us spend more time online than is healthy, aren’t we being harmed by our own testimony? Society has standards governing testing of human subjects in other fields. But these standards aren’t applied to all the A/B testing we experience online.

There are questions here for our faltering democracy, too. California tech companies help interest groups or campaigns test how best to manipulate us for political purposes. Is such testing a factor in the rise of polarization and fake news?

This world of testing needs real regulation – by the same authorities, and under the same laws, that regulate business in the name of protecting us from health and financial threats. To start, let’s add regulation of A/B testing to privacy rules already imposed on tech firms.

A/B testing is also impersonal – it’s not good at capturing the identities and needs of individuals. Smart people in Silicon Valley know this, which is why they are moving beyond A/B testing to machine learning, a world of algorithms that learn about each user. The promise of machine learning is that, someday, algorithms will continuously improve in giving each of us customized products.

But, in testing their way to such a future, California’s brightest brains are both hiding behind their screens and intruding. Yes, their goal is to improve technology and lives. Yes, we can choose, A or B. But how much choice does constant testing really give us test subjects about the design of our collective future?

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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