Saturday, February 18, 2012

Target's targets

Privacy, or lack thereof, is back in the news again. We've been hearing for a couple of years now how Facebook is destroying privacy, how you need to be hyper-vigilant about your "privacy settings" because otherwise Facebook will share "private information" with nefarious sources that will somehow use knowledge of your favorite bands and TV shows to destroy you.

Now in the last week we've been hit with two breaking stories about how corporations are collecting your personal data. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Google Chrome browser was built to track cookies so as to circumvent the iPhone privacy settings, already drawing the ire of members of Congress.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has revealed that the Target corporation has such an advanced data analysis system that they can diagnose pregnancies based upon purchasing patterns. This led to a situation where a teen-age girl was mailed baby coupons, leading to an enraged father confronting a local Target manager. A few days later the man called back and apologized to the manager, telling him that there had been "activities activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August."

The author of the Times article had had access to Target cut off, but for awhile he was privy to some of the inner workings of the corporation. He found out that when baby coupons were mailed to future mothers, the response rate was not as good as when baby coupons were sent as part of a larger coupon section of random items. The conclusion is obvious: when consumers feel like they are being "spied on," they freak out. When the appeal is more subtle, they respond to it.

But why do they freak out? Obviously, nobody likes the idea of being under surveillance. But do we fear surveillance for its own sake, or are we afraid of the judgment that might come from it? I'm inclined to think it's the latter, and that there is a certain cognitive dissonance about the nature of those doing the surveillance.

A corporation cannot judge you, because a corporation does not respect your integrity as an individual. Target was not praising or condemning the teen-age parent-to-be. A corporation regards you as a data point. And this is only fair, because you feel the same way about it. It's a relationship based upon mutual utility, not upon the mutual construction of identity. Granted, you regularly deal with human faces that represent the corporation (at least in the case of Target, if not Facebook or Google), but you are usually not called upon to respect their integrity as individuals, only as representatives of the non-human entity.

So I think it is generally logical to not be afraid of data collection, and if anything, to view the application of the interpretation of the data with enthusiasm. We supposedly value efficiency in business--what is wrong with being the beneficiary of a database's efficiency? As with any corporate practice, there may be unintended consequences, such as the case of the father who found out his daughter was pregnant only after Target did...but you can make the case in that instance that data analysis expedited a conversation that would have to take place eventually, and one that arguably should have taken place already.

But I think there is another factor that leads to our antipathy for such corporate practices. We want to be respected as individuals. We want our choices to be evaluated and judged, including (perhaps especially) our consumer purchases. Sometimes we ostentatiously display our choices, often in settings where we could be judged, for good or ill. I think we resent it that corporations regard us as just a data point, as if they can predict our nature and preferences independent of our free will to assert ourselves.

To such a concern, I would advise this: if you don't want to be treated as a data point, don't act like a data point. If you would prefer not to be a target for marketing schemes, maybe you ought to consider the nature of a corporation named "Target."


Anonymous Jay . T said...

i don't know i think there more to it. i mean who say what is private and whats not, who set the standards. because if i did everything would be sweet.

4:49 PM  

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