Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Weighed, Measured, and Found ....?

So far today I have taken 4,064 steps.  I know this because I wear a pedometer provided by our health insurance company as part of a plan to promote healthy activity.  So they know it, too.

Today I have also been at work, at home, and at Target.  I know what times I was at each place because my phone keeps track of these things for me.  At the end of the month, Google presents me with a nice report that shows me, among other things, how much time I've spent at work and at home and what other places I've visited during the month.  They offered to do this for me, free of charge, and I agreed because I'm an engineer and I like charts.  The report also includes details about how many emails I've sent and received, what kinds of things I've been searching for online, and what browsers I use most often.  It's honestly not much use to me (although the authentication report portion is a nice double check of my account security) but it's "kind of neat" and I like seeing it.  But really, offering it to me was Google's way of getting permission to compile this data in the first place.  So they know it, too.

At Target, I took care of some returns and then bought a few more things.  I didn't have my receipt, but I had the card I originally used to make the purchase and they were able to look up everything they needed to give my money back to me right on the card, no hassle.  That's extremely convenient.  It's also an indication that Target knows every purchase I've made with that card.  What is very useful for me is much moreso for Target.

Many retailers have a customer card they want you to use to get additional details.  Target doesn't, but they do offer a check card and a credit card you can apply for.  It amounts to the same thing.  There's some profit in the card itself, I'm sure, but really I suspect the important bit to Target is that moment when you give them your name, address, and contact information during the application process.  Even if the application is not approved (and many are not), Target still gets the contact information to add to their customer profile.  Have you ever given your phone number when the clerk at the home goods store asks for it?  If you're in the phone book, they probably know where you live now, too.  Did you use a credit card for that transaction?  Now they can link your name and address with every other transaction that uses that card.  You used cash, you say?  Well, good for you.  You're safe from tracking... for now.

So what do they DO with this information?  Some companies don't use it at all.  There's a "needle in stack of needles" problem with data right now.  We have more of it than we know how to use, more of it than we are able to process effectively, and finding the useful bits (or more accurately, making the useful connections) requires diligence, intelligence, and dedication, something a lot of people (and companies) just can't muster.

Target is not one of those companies.  Go read this article.  I think you'll find it fascinating.  I did.

Or you could read this one, which is a (slightly sensationalized) synopsis of the first one, which itself is an excerpt from this book.  How much time do you have?

We share a great deal of information with the companies with whom we interact.  Some of it, as with Target, is the record of the actions we take through normal behavior within that company's domain.  For sites like Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, or any other "sharing" interaction, we put much more personal information up for grabs.

Google has a pretty strict privacy policy, which I appreciate, and yes I did read it.  Reading it, however, is not the same as considering it carefully.  "Yep," I said, "nothing there looks too dodgy." and I went ahead with what I was going to do anyway and kept my life data tied deeply into their products.  Because that's convenient.

Sure, I could claim my data back, but then I'd have to stop using such useful programs.  Sure, I could make all my transactions in cash, but that's a pain in the tukhus. 

Also, as much as companies like Target and Google get out of this information, so too do I get something from their collection of it.  Did you read that article I recommended?  Did you see the part where Target's research allows them to send targeted coupons for things their clients specifically need?  Target was already sending me coupons; now they're sending me good coupons. 

This information, this personal data, is making companies more efficient.  That's why they do it.  They want to spend less money for more gain.  That gain comes from my dollars.  If they can better provide the things I want, they get more of my money.  So, yes, they're after my money, but they're doing it by meeting my needs more effectively.  I'm okay with that.  Their efforts to reduce their own waste (by, for instance, eliminating the coupons they send me for things I'll never buy), they reduce my waste, too.

Things get more complicated when I'm not the end customer.  This is the difference I see between Facebook or Google and retailers like Target.  Facebook and Google are selling access to me.  I'm not the customer, although I am the customer's customer so I do still receive at least partial value from the sale of my own information.  At the very least, I start seeing more useful ads on my websites, which is nice, I guess.

True personal information management is an immensely powerful development in the world of "productivity."  Companies can spend less to do more by better tailoring their services, their products, and their sales pitches to reach me directly.  That last one, the sales pitch thing, is the alarming one because this power is also capable of acting in some very subtle ways.  It becomes possible for a company to improve their ability to convince me to do what they want without actually improving their service to me.  We humans make far too many of our decisions automatically for me to ever be truly comfortable with "subtle" corporations.

I've actually been tinkering with this blog entry for a few months now.  Part of the reason (besides the usual ones) that this has taken so long is that I don't have a conclusion.

As a Systems Engineer trained in statistics and data analysis, and more generally as a man fascinated by the challenge of extrapolating big pictures from small bytes, I find the whole thing thrilling and exciting.  There's a computer program that can turn shared collections of tourist photos of Notre Dame into a complex 3D image of the cathedral (seriously, if you haven't seen that TED talk before, check it out).  This thing Target (and Google and Facebook) is working on is a similar process applied to a human life instead of a famous landmark.  It's amazing to me that we can do that.  And, in the general evolution of capitalist proficiency, it's a great step towards reducing all kinds of waste.

As a man who lives in a world where governments bomb their own people to stay in power, where the first weapons of cyberwarfare have already been unleashed, and where companies are knowingly flouting safety laws to get their wares out any way they can; I'm concerned about the development of a digital technology capable of mapping my life and preferences without my knowledge.

There are immense benefits here.  I think the knee-jerk fear of this kind of analysis is wrong, but I'm not going to claim it isn't without some fierce risks.  This knowledge hasn't exactly changed my behavior yet, but perhaps it should.  I'm going to have to keep thinking about this one.


jeremy said...
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Buddha Quotes said...

Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship.