Friday, September 7, 2012

It knows exactly where you are and exactly what you want

You work the night shift, and you just got off work. It’s 9:30 in the morning. You step out into the street and the screen of your phone lights up with an ad from a local business: a restaurant, literally across the street from where you are standing, is open early and has a special on Thai basil, one of your personal all-time favorite foods. Your friend who works with you is standing right next to you, but the screen of his phone is aglow with Margi-Rita, a particularly pneumatic redhead who is scheduled to appear on stage at a strip club around the corner later this afternoon. It turns out your friend has a weakness—a fetish, really—for busty redheads.

Machines using algorithms continuously collect and collate data from your email, your text messages, your internet activity, your credit card and debit card purchases, your organizational memberships, and a potentially open-ended variety of other sources. What emerges is a profile of you that can be used to predict your future consumer desires better than you can. These algorithms can also be used to tailor commercial advertisements and political propaganda to your individual psychology, tapping into your weaknesses and idiosyncrasies for maximum effect. And by tracking your cell phone (something already done without your consent to monitor traffic flow patterns), the ads can be localized and continually updated to accommodate your every movement. Think of the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report, where the wall-mounted video billboards greeted people personally as they walked by—only you carry the billboard around in your pocket.
The technology for this particular kind of direct micro-marketing, individualized to the point tracking your movements and delivering content relevant to your specific location (in addition to your personal habits and your specific idiosyncratic preferences) is available and will be business as usual by this time next year.

A friend of mine, whose upper lip is deeply stained with a techno-koolaid moustache, told me that there is really no downside to this. He happens in fact to like Thai basil, and the fact that the restaurant across the street has a special on it is something he wouldn’t want to miss. What I didn’t think to ask him was how he originally found out about Thai basil. How many of our most cherished things (and people) were a result of an unplanned encounter? Chances are that he stumbled across Thai basil by accident. Perhaps his car broke down in front of a restaurant that he would have never visited otherwise. 

Our desires and preferences are already highly groomed by corporate marketing. Many of them are completely manufactured and would have no traction at all if our lives weren’t so deeply embedded in consumer culture. The more complex mass society becomes, the more we need the corporate machine to sift our priorities. The more individualized this process becomes, the more that our preferences become canalized. A fundamental paradox of mass society: more options mean less real choice. In the case of micro-targeted advertising, each choice you make leads to a further restriction in the range of possibilities presented.

Mint raita is at least as good as Thai basil, and the restaurant two blocks over has the best Indian food in town, but your phone will remain forever silent about that fact. And your friend may never have the opportunity to acquire a deep appreciation for the aesthetic qualities of waifish brunettes.

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