This weekend I read about how Target figured out a teen was pregnant before her father did. The article (and The New York Times piece from which the story was sourced – How Companies Learn Your Secrets) have been widely circulated on the interweb, but if you missed it, the summary is that Target analyse customers purchasing patterns and, based on the products bought, are able to determine (with a high degree of accuracy) if a customer is pregnant, and then use this information to send them marketing and promotional material.
Apart from feeling a little uneasy about the fact that companies are collecting and using this kind of personal information in what seems to be quite a manipulative marketing approach, what made me more frustrated was that this was another example of clearly seriously smart people (in this case the Target mathematicians and statisticians analysing this consumer behaviour) spending their time (and their intellect and talents) trying to figure out how to get people to buy more stuff (that they probably don’t need or even want).
This has got me pondering and reflecting on a number of recent articles/podcasts that have raised similar issues. Like the Panel at last year’s SXSW Interactive on the topic ‘Techies Can Save the World, Why Aren’t They?‘ in which panelist Jack Hidary commented…
There is a lot of talent being attracted to all the great game companies and the great app companies and it’s fantastic but the fact is that we have major challenges to solve. Renewable energy, mobility, transportation, all these big areas are really left unsolved. (more…)