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Predictive analytics and information camouflage

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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.

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