Ethical mind hacking

It is Friday, so this is a slightly longer article: as for the title, jump to the last section, or wait a couple of thousands of words.

The purpose? Describing through practical cases how writing could be used to improve the learning experience- and, on the flip side, how writing could actually obfuscate information, while formally releasing everything that is required.

The principle being: first, observe; then, judge- if you do the other way around, you risk a selective observation, and to focus only on what you already saw before, ignoring new possibilities.

This is a side-effect of acting based on experience (i.e. patterns): if the communication is structured around what sounds familiar to you, you can be easily mislead into ignoring information relevant to your decision.

Social engineering is quite common in face-to-face or verbal communication (e.g. when somebody starts with a compliment, before asking you to do something), and the main defence is a constant attention for potential “patterns of manipulation”- in writing, it requires a different approach..

I will skip describing how did I came to build up experience on structuring information and identifying the structure in existing information- but let’s just say that for business reasons I am currently reviewing material that I first studied between the late 1980s and early 1990s, on business number crunching (both to produce the numbers and to identify “patterns”).

Structuring information: writing

If you read the articles in the “Change2010” series, I stated that the length was up to 1000 words each, but I did not say that the introductory section was 250 words, while the other sections would spread the remaining 750 (if you don’t believe me, check: ignore the titles).

Also, I adopted a 7 or 14 “points” structure in each section (the introduction was always composed of 7 points).

Why? To have a beginning and end, and a mid-point (for the 7), or an extended beginning and end (usually two paragraphs), followed by a gradual “climbing” and “descending”.

I learned to structure documents first while doing political activities within a European Federalist organization in Italy, where sometimes I had to prepare or help to prepare and type 1-page handouts, and structure a message within those boundaries: at first, I wrote too much.

At the time, we were using an electric typewriting machine, and something called in Italian “ciclostile”- you basically prepared a matrix, and then applied it on a machine that got ink through your matrix, and printed copies: so, no font choice.

The interesting part was to “integrate” whatever I was writing about within the language and document structure adopted by other documents produced in the organization: keywords, “communication patterns”, repeated messages, and so on.

Few years later, I had the same experience while doing my compulsory service in the Army, in 1985-1986: I was so bored, as I was confined to the infirmary, that I went to the office and said that I was good at typing and reorganizing libraries and documents- eventually, it became one of my jobs.

Every letter I typed had an historical structure- and it was fascinating to discover how messages could “decay”, e.g. when, out of boredom, I set out to restructure the filing system, and I discovered that long before, somebody had written a wrong reference- promptly copied by all those following.

I discovered that just in time (my luck) for a change at the divisional level, and a letter asking clarifications- and therefore I was able to immediately find both the mistake and the starting point, and introduce the appropriate changes in the next letter.

The issue? By asking to repeat times and again the same information, eventually the human brain gets bored, and screams for shortcuts.

A computer would print the same letter character-by-character a thousand times, changing only what has to be changed.

A person would remember the general structure, the order of the items in the sequence, and then insert only what changes- but, eventually, due to distraction or other issues, errors would be introduced, e.g. skipping a phrase, switching the order, writing something twice, leaving old information inside the new document.

But these are issues in production- what about errors in reading?

Structuring information: reading

If you receive documents that are always structured in the same way, often you develop have two basic defenses from boredom: skip what you recognize as part of the usual structure (a “pattern”), and focus on what is different.

Of course, provided that you do not need to read thousands of pages each week, and you can keep focused on what you are (not) reading.

Eventually, most readers would simply pass under their eyes each document focusing on the structure, not really the content, and checking only some basic information that should be there to make the document valid, e.g. the signature on a form, or some data in a table.

My reviewing of old books brought back to memory another example, when actually the writing was engineered to elicit this kind of response.

It was in the 1980s, and therefore most documents, also for financial statements, were delivered on paper; usually, for larger companies, each “reader” on the receiving end was assigned a certain number of dossiers.

I was told that some companies actually did study the way documents were read, and how the reading workload was distributed, and produced ponderous documents that were structured exactly in the same way year after year, while scattering “nuances” around the document, but within the structure.

Eventually, whoever was reading would “see” the same document, and would be unable to spot the changes: until he was asked to verify after some issue were reported by third parties.

But then, the company could claim that they had reported everything- and pinpoint to where, in the document, the information was presented- because nothing was omitted.

The same approach was used by some “serial patent producers” in the US: knowing that the review time for each patent application was way below what was needed to read and analyse more than few pages, some cabinets reportedly produced patent applications containing thousands of pages.

Again, playing on the concept that somebody reading every one/two hours an application would eventually focus on structure and key items, and ignore the rest: and, in the old system, challenging a patent was an expensive endeavour (also some famous dotcom reportedly paid the business patent owners when asked, as it was cheaper than a litigation).

But while it could be possible to eventually have listed companies or patent applications produced with a structure that allows full automatic processing (including the explanatory notes), communication between people is still subject to what is called “social engineering”.

Social engineering in writing

Social engineering is often discussed only in reference to face-to-face or verbal communication, not communication in writing.

To simplify: each one of us is “embedded” in a web of social relationships and expectations, and “social patterns” play a significant role in our interactions with other people.

You expect somebody dressed with a tie and a jacket to be more reliable than somebody with clothes that are torn apart, or somebody who looks as if he knows his ways around the building to belongs to the building.

I will avoid detailed practical examples (i.e. I would not say when, where, who, how), but just the outline of two cases.

Years ago, as a wire-transfer that I had sent to pay a supplier and partner for a computer wasn’t yet delivered after about one month, I eventually agreed with the supplier that I could pass by their bank and check, showing them my documentation about the wire-transfer.

To cut a long story short: the bank teller eventually offered to give me a printout of the transactions on my suppliers’ accounts for the last month, as a proof that the wire-transfer had not been received; but he refused to accept my copy of the my wire-transfer confirmation from my side, due to… privacy concerns.

It was quite embarrassing: he even turned to me his screen, and I had to look at my wire-transfer documentation to avoid looking at the transactions on the screen (but the people beyond me were able to).

I turned down the offer, of course, and my supplier said: you should have accepted, and we would have sued them.

Why did the bank teller offer information that he should not even show to a third party? Social engineering- as I gave him information that I had, he assumed that I had a kind of legal authorization- without ever asking me any bit of paper.

Another case was when the “gate keeper” of an office building stopped a guy dressed with a tie and a jacket, and leaving the building with a computer- as he had never seen him in the building before that day.

Why nobody stopped him in the office? Because he moved and dressed like them.

In writing, social engineering is often used to create a layering of information that sounds true, while adding information that is not true, but that, in the context, becomes associated with truth: if you get past the reader the first layer, then you build another one, and so on.

Eventually, the further you go, the more distorted information becomes acceptable, as it has been confirmed by the previous layers.

But, in writing, eventually the reader can see through your schemes, by just re-reading- and a trick that I see often when the writer wants to convince somebody about a quixotic thesis is to add references to reliable information sources- who bothers to check the sources, anyway?

Ethical mind hacking

In IT security, “ethical hacking” is a series of actions done by technical experts to expose potential weaknesses in your systems: it is not just the computer- based hacking, but also social hacking, e.g. they try also to get information that they should not get.

And, as I described above in the example about the bank teller, usually people volunteer the information: and this is used everyday, e.g. to update direct marketing lists.

In the early 1990s, I had once to coach a secretary on cold calling to update information or follow a script to organize meetings, i.e. lead generation and direct marketing – she became quite skilled at bypassing any telephone “filter”, e.g. secretaries, etc, using basic social engineering tricks (and for almost two decades, whenever I had a similar activity, I knew who should I contact).

The “ethical mind hacking” implies using social engineering to reinforce learning or solidify the acquisition of new skills, e.g. by creating “learning patterns” that gradually build up to the “eureka!” moment, when the learner is able to jump to the next step, because the previous ones have been accepted and connected to her/his prior experience.

Why do I focus on learning? Because, while some could say that “ethical mind hacking” could be applied also to other areas where you want to “educate” the public, that is “subjectively ethical”.

Moreover, “ethical mind hacking” beyond a jointly shared objective requires reinforcement through other communication channels, to use their credibility to reinforce the credibility of your message.

While in face-to-face communication you can use the “soft skills” of the social engineer, in writing you need to build up your credibility to bypass the natural scepticism that your thesis might elicit.

This is currently done using multiple online venues (twitter, facebook, but also the online edition of newspapers fed through gossip and press-releases) and traditional media, to create a “common wisdom” and steer toward the acceptance of new concepts.

Recently, one of the most visible successful actors on this “mind hacking” arena is Apple (ethical from their perspective, of course), from the iTunes/iPod on: they managed to create social expectations by assembling existing technologies into a “need” package.

They did not simply target their “mind hacking” on customers, they actually focused on almost all the players involved in the supply chain of the industries that they targeted.

If you look around you, you will see almost everyday on newspapers free Apple advertisement, ranging from articles talking for or against Apple and the iPhone/iTunes/iEtc, or other companies and organizations advertising that they are releasing an application for the iPhone to read their news, or deliver a free service- further reinforcing the visibility of the brand.

The key is “seeding”- also negative campaigning, if not focused on the basic product/idea/service, but on details, is useful to build a “background”- and also a major crisis can be recovered, it depends only on how it is managed (e.g. the Perrier case long ago).

As an Italian politician reportedly said: “bene o male, purchè se ne parli”: what matters is feeding the visibility engine and setting the “dialectic territory” that also others (e.g. competitors) have to relate to in their own communication efforts.


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