How Big Data is Engineering Your Life
How Big Data is Engineering Your Life
“I’ve got no strings
So I have fun
I’m not tied up to anyone
They’ve got strings
But you can see
There are no strings on me!”
Pinocchio is the story of a marionette that dreams of becoming a real boy. He wishes upon a star, proves himself brave, selfless and true, and a kind fairy grants him his heart’s one true desire.
When the history of the 21st century is written, it could very well be the story of real boys and girls who willingly become marionettes. They stare blankly into their smartphones, prove themselves cowardly, selfish and false, and a group of technocrats puppeteers them.
Allow me to illustrate: You are a white, middle-class American woman in your late 20s. You are active on Facebook, where you have a lot of friends, but you spend most of your time there interacting with your sister, your boyfriend, and your BFFs from college. You watch a lot of ’90s teen dramas but specifically skip the episode of Felicity where she cuts her hair. You work at a dental office in a mid-rise commercial building and eat lunch every Thursday at the diner in the strip mall next door. You used to fly home for Thanksgiving and Christmas every year on United, but you recently switched to Southwest. You like ballroom dancing on weekends. Your last three purchases were a patchwork and quilting magazine, a 32-lb. bag of chicken-flavor puppy chow, and a silk tie (a present for your father’s birthday). You are agreeable, not very conscientious, and prone to worry.
Et voilà. Your specially-crafted toothpaste advertisement is served.
But you may have heard of one member of this new breed of Big Data-driven marketing firms in recent months: Cambridge Analytica. They’re the company that Trump employed to out-spin the Hillary campaign, or so we have been told ad nauseam by the strangely PR-like coverage of the firm that has been showered on them by the corporate lamestream #fakenews media since the end of last year’s (s)election cycle.
They bill themselves as a “data driven services” company that specializes in “data integration” and “audience segmentation” delivering “psychographic analysis” to drive targeted advertising campaigns or profile and influence potential voters. Or, in the significantly less buzzword-laden language of their company mission statement:
“To deliver Data-Driven Behavioral Change by understanding what motivates the individual and engaging with target audiences in ways that move them to action.”
No, that’s not a typo, that’s a selling point. The firm uses the slogan “Data driven behavior change” in their online promotional videos and offers the image of balls being directed down an inclined plane to illustrate how they can shape people’s behaviors along predetermined paths using data and marketing.
The company’s CEO, Andrew Nix, likes to go on stage at various conferences and deliver spine-chillingly Orwellian pronouncements about how Big Data is helping Cambridge Analytica create detailed psychological profiles of millions of unsuspecting “cosumers” and “voters.” These profiles can then be used to deliver individually-targeted messages to each of those millions of people, whether that message is used to sell a certain brand of toothpaste or generate interest in a certain political candidate.
If you watch any of Cambridge Analytica’s presentations, advertisements or PR spots on the national news (but I repeat myself), you’ll see that they like to brag about their ability to combine over 5000 pieces of data that they can collect on any given individual—from what airlines they’ve flown on to what magazines they’re subscribed to and everything else you can possibly imagine—to help create “psychographic” profiles of that person.
Whereas “demographics” is the division of the population into age groups and/or ethnicities, “psychographics” seeks to divide the population up along personality lines. Cambridge Analytica touts an “OCEAN” profile that rates individuals on the rather smearily-defined character traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroses. By rating each individual in a target market on these characteristics, the company can deliver custom-tailored messages that appeal to different people in ways that specifically appeal to them. Thus, someone high on agreeableness and neuroses would be better persuaded to buy toothpaste by preying on their insecurity over their smile while those with higher degrees of openness and conscientiousness would respond to advertising explaining the properties and characteristics of the toothpaste.
The story of Cambridge Analytica is a particularly chilling one, involving secretive hedge-fund billionaires and British military psyops officers who, we are now being told, shaped the political landscape through “data-driven behavior change” to usher in the era of Brexit and Trump. To be sure, there is a fascinating and chilling story to be told there, but that’s a story for another time.
The larger story here is the story of Big Data, and it will be familiar to those who are reading this article. The long story short is that we have reached an inflection point in history. Large data broker services have been quietly purchasing and collating thousands of pieces of data on you and everyone you know, and the burgeoning data-driven marketing industry is now weaponizing that data in psychological operations designed to influence your choices, behavior and patterns of thought without you even knowing.
Think of Big Data as a malevolent technocratic Santa Claus: it sees you when you’re sleeping, it knows when you’re awake, it knows if you’ve been bad or good (even in advance!), so be good for goodness sake!
Actually, it’s worse than that. It doesn’t even matter if you’re trying to be good (or bad) for whatever sake; the social engineers are now honing their ability to make you want to buy things, do things, vote for or against certain candidates, and otherwise shape your daily thoughts and actions, without your knowledge or consent, by appealing to your individual psychological profile. And instead of running in the other direction, people are in a mad scramble to put even more intrusive data-collection devices in their homes to scoop up every last drop of information about their lives and send it off to corporations they often don’t even know exist.
The real boys and girls are uploading their lives to facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and Alexa and every other Big Data collection front. And in the process, they are giving the Big Data puppeteers the strings with which they will be pulled around like so many marionettes.
It’s a real question whether there is any way short of living in a cabin in the woods to avoid being scooped up in the Big Data dragnet. But the more fundamental question is whether the real boys and girls will ever realize, or even care, that they are slowly becoming Pinocchio.