Sunday, February 26, 2012

Watching the Watchers: The Gibsonian Now

"...gazing down, into the pool of data that reflected her life, its surface made of all the bits that were the daily record of her life as registered on the digital fabric of the world." —William Gibson, Idoru, published in 1996

Having just come off a binge of re-reading William Gibson's novels, this Forbes article describing how Target tracks customer's buying patterns and attempts to manipulate them came as no real surprise. Governments have been keeping records, births, deaths, census, taxes, and so forth for ages, but our increasingly digitally-driven world exposes details of our lives that we don't ever really think about. And it exposes them to corporations, especially credit card companies, in ways unprecedented in history.  Whether that is a good thing or not depends on your point of view. After all, Target was using the data to provide coupons that would lower the cost of goods for the expectant mother. The coupons benefit the customer, the repeat business benefits the company, and everyone is happy.  Right?

I think it's quite telling that the truly targeted coupons generate a feeling of creepiness. Like we are being watched. And of course we are, at least in aggregate. Throw in that Target was easily able to disguise the targeting by throwing a little noise into the signal, and you get a rather interesting view into the human psyche.