I’m a champion for personal differences. All society should be much more personalized. —George M. Church
Please allow me to paint a scenario for you.
Imagine that you woke up this morning with a bit of a sniffle. As the seasons change, your allergies are acting up a bit; nothing serious but you should probably pick up some over-the-counter medication on your way to work. You down a cup of coffee and toast a bagel before heading out the door. Stopping at the convenient drug store just down the street, you pick up the allergy medication and your favorite candy bar. Work is stressful, as Mondays so often are, and you welcome the chance to get out of the office at lunch time. You decide to do a little shopping to cheer yourself up.
Walking into a department store just two doors down from your office, the first thing you see are some cute sweaters that would be perfect for wearing to work. You look for the price and a small LED screen tells you the sweater is 50% off the regular price. You can’t beat a deal like that. As you pick up a sweater in your size, your favorite song comes on the store’s music system. Paying for the sweater with the store’s credit card generates another 10% off the price and you’re beginning to feel as though this was a great bargain. The clerk hands you the receipt and on the back is a coupon for a bag full of your favorite candy bar.
You have just enough time to grab something to eat and when you enter the sidewalk cafe the waiter immediately suggests the vegetable soup, emphasizing its healthy properties. Finished with the soup, you return to work and get a call from your trainer at the gym. He suggests you stop by on your way home because, you know, Mondays are so very stressful.
A Highly Personalized Life
According to Joseph Turow, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, that highly personalized life experience is possibly less than a year away. His upcoming book, The Aisles Have Eyes comes out in January and covers the details of how and why all this personalization is happening. In an interview with Kaveh Waddell for The Atlantic magazine, Turow explains not only the upside of personalization but also the creepy dangers of living in such a connected world. Walking into a store and immediately finding what you want at a price you can afford sounds wonderful, but the details behind how that happens can be a bit disconcerting.
Of course, most of us already know that everything we do online is being tracked dozens of different ways. Every website you visit, every click you make, every product over which you briefly drool is noticed by something, somewhere, and that information is stored in a database for later influence. As a result, when another website feels the time is right, an ad pops up for that exact same product, touting a new, lower price. We get it. We know we’re being watched and our data is being collected.
What we’ve not realized, perhaps, is that it is not just our online activity that is being tracked. Everything we do is being noted by some app connected to some database. Our cell phones are most often the culprit. One app recognizes a sneeze and knows you may need coupons for a cold medicine. Another notices that you are driving more aggressively to work, indicating that you’re likely stressed even before you get there. Four different apps notice the purchase you make at the drug store and send an alert to the waiter at the cafe you just entered, suggesting that you might like the soup. It’s all possible, right now.
Nothing You Do Is Secret
Author George Orwell warned us about the constant oversight of a government he referred to as “Big Brother.” What Orwell didn’t imagine is that we would have apps and “reward” cards that collect far more information about us and our habits than his “Big Brother” could ever dream. Even more astonishing to Orwell is that we would hand over such information willingly. No one requires us to download the apps or accept the “reward” cards. We do so in the hopes of perhaps getting a bit of a discount on the things we buy.
Is a 10% discount worth giving up a lot of privacy? Apparently, we tend to think so. Rarely does anyone opt out of information gathering, especially once they’ve started using a program. For example, I just received my AARP card last week because I’m even older than Luke Perry. The card comes with a long list of “benefits” that include discounts for a lot of the things old people like me are apparently supposed to do, such as eat out and take trips. I read the small print, though. Anytime I use the card for a discount, AARP collects that information. They note not only which restaurant I dine at, but how much I spend. If I eat at a chain facility in multiple cities, that gets noticed as well. Over time, they are able to build a profile of my activities, which in turn, allows them to better “personalize” my “benefits.”
Do I mind AARP having that information? Not especially, because the presumption is that they use the information to my benefit. However, they also sell that information to “partners.” I would like to presume that those “partners” are equally safe, but how would we know? What are my options if one of those “partners” uses that information to start sending me spam? What if my health insurance rates go up because they see that what I’m eating probably isn’t helping my blood pressure a damn bit? Yeah, we might have a problem here.
The Potential For Abuse
While we all like the convenience of having everything personalized for us, the reality is that the information we give up could be used against us as well. From the article comes this question and answer:
Waddell: Is it legal for an advertiser or a retailer to decide, based on someone’s profile, like their race, that they’re higher risk and perhaps not show them certain goods?
Turow: Sure! Of course. They’ll never say that it’s because of race—and they wouldn’t do it just because of race. They’d do it because of, say, income. If you have the money, it doesn’t matter what race you are, from their standpoint—but race gets built in by virtue of where people live, their income brackets, and other things that are much less obvious.
I think age is going to be a major factor. It already is, among retailers. Income is going to be a big factor. And things that we don’t even think about, various concatenations of lifestyles that lead to certain predictions about what you will or will not read, or when you will or will not take a vacation, or if you will or will not have certain frequent-flier miles.
The ability to run through thousands of datapoints about you and compare them with thousands of datapoints about people you don’t even know, and then come up with a sense of what you will buy or not buy at what price: That’s the goal. The goal is to come up with a price for you that you accept based on the product they think you would want.
Personalization is great when it works in your favor, but we have to remember that all businesses need to make a profit. Therefore, they’re inherently going to look for ways to turn everything in their favor more than ours. If that means denying some people access to certain goods and services, then that is exactly what they’re going to do.
The Internet Of Things
Kat and I were watching last night’s episode of Madame Secretary before she left for school this morning. As part of the storyline where the family is being stalked, all of their “smart” appliances are hacked. The family becomes frightened when they realize that not even the presence of a physical security detail can protect them from someone taking control of the lights, the heat, and the appliances in their home.
When you hear people talking about “The Internet of Things,” they’re talking about how everything in our lives is becoming interconnected. Our appliances, the lights in our house, the heat, our phones, our insurance, and our shopping. Everything we do becomes a datapoint somewhere that connects to something else that connects to somewhere else. So, if your income is low and you show a history of having difficulty paying your bills, maybe an app starts shutting off the lights rather than leaving them on for hours on end, or adjusts the thermostat so you use less energy. Maybe your local grocery won’t sell you that big box of fried pies because they know you’re borderline diabetic. Perhaps the price on that pair of boots you like suddenly shoots up and is now more than you have the ability to cover.
Even worse, as events last week demonstrated, what happens when all our data gets hacked? There is no such thing as a totally safe database. That means the more information we allow people to collect, the more at risk we are of that information being stolen and used against us.
No, that’s not creepy at all, is it? Get ready, though. I don’t see any way to stop this phenomenon from happening, short of everyone on the planet unplugging and going back to binary means of commerce. Something tells me none of us are willing to do that. So, bend over and lube up. We’re not only getting screwed, we’re asking for it. Don’t worry, though; it’s all personalized.