Predictive analytics and information camouflage

Charles Duhigg’s article in the New York Times Magazine and this excerpt from Joseph Turow’s book at the Atlantic make for good companion reading. Both are about the rise of data mining for marketing purposes — the efforts to assign consumers a profile that will then determine their status in various retail spheres and what sort of deals they will be offered and ads they will see and what sort of service they will be offered and so on. Both give a sense of how our ingrained commitment to the values of consumerism then opens us to being further programmed in our habitual choices: consumerism is the maze in which retailers can hide the chocolate in the form of various goods. And scientists and statisticians are only too happy to treat us like lab rats we’ve become.

Duhigg’s article focuses mainly on Target’s efforts to figure out which customers are about to go through a major life change (like pregnancy) so that it can take advantage of their flux and vulnerability to change their shopping habits.

Consumers going through major life events often don’t notice, or care, that their shopping habits have shifted, but retailers notice, and they care quite a bit. At those unique moments, Andreasen wrote, customers are “vulnerable to intervention by marketers.” In other words, a precisely timed advertisement, sent to a recent divorcee or new homebuyer, can change someone’s shopping patterns for years.

Apparently humans’ habits are hard to alter unless they are thrown into a kind of emotional state of shock by impending situations. For the time being, companies like Target are content to sift through our data trails to figure out who among us are entering into chaotic periods (and the process for this involves all sorts of cross-referencing of data from pools most of haven’t ever thought it was possible to combine — the focus of Turow’s book). Perhaps the technology to instigate such chaos in people’s lives on an individual by individual basis is waiting in the wings.

Duhigg notes the efforts Target must make not to “spook” customers with obvious behavioral-based targeting. Since the company wanted to target pregnant women who haven’t explicitly notified Target about their pregnancy, they had to use informational camouflage:

“With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly,” the executive said. “Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance.

“And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons…. As long as we don’t spook her, it works.” … As long as Target camouflaged how much it knew, as long as the habit felt familiar, the new behavior took hold.

As with political scandal, what’s so bothersome about this less the targeting itself — though that is bad for reasons Turow details, more on that below — but the cover-up. Retailers don’t want transparency in their attempts to manipulate your behavior; they want to control how your habits evolve. They understand that the more you know about their techniques, the less effective they will be. And they try to justify themselves with the idea that they know better than us what we really want and their marketing techniques allow us to get out of our way to indulge ourselves how we really want and become who we really want to be. Thus Duhigg concludes with this quote from Target’s targeting guru: “Just wait. We’ll be sending you coupons for things you want before you even know you want them.” We’re supposed to think that is a good thing. We’re not supposed to think that the company is using the data it has collected on us to shape the possibilities of what we can become, to control the context in which we make our lives and understand ourselves.

Turow is much more outspoken in his alarm at this, focusing on the ways marketing dictates to a degree the way we think of ourselves.

From this vantage point, the rhetoric of consumer power begins to lose credibility. In its place is a rhetoric of esoteric technological and statistical knowledge that supports the practice of social discrimination through profiling. We may note its outcomes only once in a while, and we may shrug when we do because it seems trivial — just a few ads, after all. But unless we try to understand how this profiling or reputation-making process works and what it means for the long term, our children and grandchildren will bear the full brunt of its prejudicial force.

Turow’s right to expect to have his concern dismissed. Felix Salmon, who may serve here as representative of the commonsense pragmatic view — doesn’t think this is a big deal since we “never really had personal privacy” and most people in America anyway don’t really mind. He argues that “companies like Target and Google have no interest in becoming some kind of Hollywood corporate villain” and only in the overheated imaginations of pessimists and Germans do such dystopian visions take root. An even more contemptuous take on the so-called right to be forgotten can be found here, where Jane Yankowitz calls it “crap” and concerns about it “hogwash.” How dare the EU try to restrict the money-making abilities of American tech companies? How dare they.

The underlying implication is we can’t do anything about it really, innovation must press on (and innovation always means at its root more aggressive and irresistible selling techniques), so let’s enjoy our time on the march instead of making it an unnecessary trail of tears. But I think that companies are not monolithic entities; they are themselves balances of different factions with different attitudes toward the ethical use of data. And there is no telling what those with access to data profiles will be willing to do with them extracurricularly, or what governments might do with them, should they be allowed access.

That may seem unduly paranoid, but the track record of companies and states is hardly unblemished. And the scope of data collection assures that no one is innocent. The creation of new facts about people through data cross-pollination means that something that can be used as leverage with people will be generated. Some convincing basis of discrimination against you will be made. Turow makes this point pretty effectively:

Advertisements and discounts are status signals: they alert people as to their social position. If you consistently get ads for low-priced cars, regional vacations, fast-food restaurants, and other products that reflect a lower-class status, your sense of the world’s opportunities may be narrower than that of someone who is feted with ads for national or international trips and luxury products …

In fact, the ads may signal your opportunities actually are narrowed if marketers and publishers decide that the data points — profiles — about you across the internet position you in a segment of the population that is relatively less desirable to marketers because of income, age, past-purchase behavior, geographical location, or other reasons. Turning individual profiles about individual evaluation is what happens when a profile becomes a reputation… Marketers divide people into targets and waste.

Apparently those are the terms of art in the media-buying business. At this point the article had me speculating whether we will see attempts to make exemption from this sort of profiling into a luxury good: You pay others to shop for you, or pay extra to not have data collected on you. You aspire to be unsimulatable in data — to have that level of rich complexity and private access. Since personal data is explicitly currency already, it devalues other currencies, Gresham’s law style. Perhaps reverse interchange fees could be put in place, by which goods would cost more when you pay in cash. (Right now, the war on cash is limited to the FBI thinking cash users are potential terrorists.) Since privacy is becoming scarcer and scarcer, why not go ahead a make it a full on positional good? The little people will fret about their data selves and what sort of person Target thinks they are. But true elites will be beyond reputation.

What Turow’s getting at, beyond the obvious problem of using people’s data history to exclude them socially, is what Judith Williamson described in Decoding Advertisements (summary here). She uses Althusser as a frame for showing how ads interpellate us as certain kids of subjects. The ads call out to us in certain ways, and we recognize ourselves as the sort of person they are hailing.

Lifted some of this from this old Generation Bubble post.
 Williamson argues that “advertisements are selling us something else besides consumer goods: in providing us with a structure in which we, and those goods, are interchangeable, they are selling us ourselves.”

Williamson points out that “there is no logical reason to suppose that the advertisement had ‘you’ in mind all along. You have to exchange yourself with the person ‘spoken to,’ the spectator the ad creates for itself.” Ads turn us into their implied reader when we consume them, an apparently attractive bargain because the “you” of ads is always an important person with money and taste whose decisions about breakfast cereals or watch brands are held to be earth-shatteringly important.

Advertisements have always exploited this principle, intimating that we have magically earned a right to think of ourselves as special and significant. Most important, it allows us to feel for a moment as though we have garnered social recognition without having to do anything socially useful. Then, so flattered,we don’t question some of the other assumptions about us that ads establish as social facts. As Williamson explains:

Ads create an ‘alreadyness’ of ‘facts’ about ourselves as individuals: that we are consumers, that we have certain values, that we will freely buy things, consume, on the basis of those values, and so on. We are trapped in the illusion of choice… [Ads] invite us ‘freely’ to create ourselves in accordance with the way in which they have already created us.

Obviously, data mining makes this process more insidious. Williamson argues that ads work mainly by creating an arena into which we can enter and make meanings, and it’s that meaning-making process that traps us, not any specific ad-based purchases. Making that arena easier to enter is part of what data mining achieves, making it easier to construct ourselves as primarily consumers, to slip in the simulacrum of ourselves marketers can build from our data, a self constituted entirely of shopping decisions. In this phantom self, all other data is important only insofar as it shapes consumer preferences, which is the ground of the “real” self.

Williamson’s describes the interpretive work we perform on ads as simultaneously work on the self.

Nothing [in the ad] even ‘says’ that Catherine Deneuve is ‘like’ Chanel no. 5, or that they have a similar aura. We are given two signifiers, and required to make a ‘signified’ by exchanging them. The fact that we have to make that exchange, to do the linking work which is not done in the ad, but which is only made possible by its form, draws us into the transformational space between the units of the ad. Its meaning only exists in this space: the field of transaction; and it is here that we operate — we are this space.

Even when we aren’t convinced by a particular ad to buy anything, the work changes us. And we are nevertheless tempted to assume that other people are convinced and that from the totality of ads we can deduce social norms and salient lifestyle distinctions that are operating generally, even as we hold ourselves above them. Ads lift us above the other people who are duped by them. That is part of how they persuade us.

That is why the informational camouflage is so important to Target. If we see Target doing the work, we won’t do it, and we won’t be brought in. We are hailed by ads only under the pretense that we are observing someone else being hailed (someone who turns out to become us).

I’m not sure to what extent the emergence of commercialized “social” consumption is changing the premises of Williamson’s analysis, making identity feel more collective in our consciousness and upending the necessary fiction of our total personal autonomy over our own identity. For the time being, though, capitalism still relies on consumers who believe against the evidence that they are in control.