Mallika Makkar/THE VARSITY

Manipulation happens on a spectrum, and we’re all guilty of pulling strings to influence others to some degree. If I want a reluctant friend to attend a party, for instance, I might bribe her with promises of free beer. Maybe, to increase my chances of success, I’ll also forget to mention the only beer I can afford comes in a 40-ounce bottle and technically isn’t actually beer, but malt liquor.

Whatever the strategy, the crux remains: we all have interests, and sometimes we need to project a certain image to satisfy them. But where exactly does the uncrossable line reside in the gap between harmless coercion and complete control?

Overt offers in the form of alcohol are generally regarded as acceptable conduits for mollifying our personal agendas at the expense of others. Yet, shadier manipulation tactics transgress conventional interaction. When a person’s motives and methods aren’t explicit, they run the risk of devaluing a fellow to object status.

Recently developed apps and digital services such as Crystal or IBM’s Watson make the importance of defining this line more vital than ever. These programs use publicly available data to determine the traits and social tendencies of anybody with an online presence. Essentially, every unique person can be typified and matched to a compendium of personality profiles. These profiles give others access to a person’s entire online existence, with each strength and weakness exposed for anyone’s perusal.

According to its developers, the point of Crystal is to facilitate communication – knowing how the other person behaves and responds before reaching out makes it easier to generate effective discourse. The company markets their approach as one based on the “ancient principle” of empathetic communication. In other words, by mirroring the other person’s communication style rather than using your own, Crystal thinks you can get what you want more often.

Naturally, I searched for my own name right after hearing about Crystal. From what it was able to pull out of the ether, the program drew a startlingly accurate portrait of how I think and communicate — right down to my appreciation for formal emails and shortage of hand flailing in face-to-face conversation. And I don’t even use my real name on Facebook.

Yet after the wow-factor wore off, I balked at the possibility that total strangers might use Crystal’s conclusions to subtly influence my decisions. Using Crystal, my classmates could ask for missed lecture notes and actually convince me to agree, not by offering me something in return, but merely by shifting the way they phrase their requests. Haunted by such a thought, I realized that this kind of covert, one-sided manipulation could verge on abuse: picture the predatory salesperson or entanglement in a sociopathic romance.

But what concerns me most, as a student, isn’t just the potential for being played. With the introduction of Big Data-driven personality profiles, the encroachment of cutthroat corporate ethics — mainly, the idea that one ought to pursue one’s own interests at the expense of others — now bleeds aggressively into academic circles.

In the business world, attaining results often trumps social niceties, and individual interests can often clash, making subtle coercion a laudable tactic. Conversely, in universities, we tend to share the same ends: namely, creating meaning and establishing

facts. Because we’re working towards a common goal rather than competing against each other for market share or valuable assets, stronger logistical rules apply in terms of how we work together. Weaken these rules, and cooperation becomes more difficult, a consequence that compromises our collective search for knowledge.

Crystal’s system sounds innocuous and helpful, but if we’re always suspicious of others trying to one-up us using the insights these apps give them, then we may unwittingly create a social atmosphere resembling a Hobbesian state of nature, with each individual looking out only for his own selfish needs and wants while fearing interference from others. That’s no way to pursue collaborative research or promote scholarly cooperation.

Manipulation has a fracturing effect on relationships. That its more sinister forms ought to be avoided to maintain beneficial communication standards is an absolute no-brainer. Since Crystal dissolves the boundary between acceptable and invidious persuasion, its use ought to be closely examined, particularly for those involved in academic pursuits. Rather than eagerly take Crystal’s advice, think twice about communicating the old-fashioned way — through explicitly-stated aims articulated over a cold glass of Colt 45.

Malone Mullin is a fifth-year student studying philosophy.

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