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.
And the article, ‘This Tech Bubble is Different‘, about maths genius and former Facebook employee Jeff Hammerbacher:
“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” he says. “That sucks.”
And another focusing on the important role that designers can play in solving problems that matter, ‘If We’re All Smart, Why Aren’t We Solving Problems?‘:
How do we help move our discipline out of the realm of software, websites, furniture, and aesthetic based work to the realm of the type of thought, synthesis, and observation we can provide. We’re not designers of aesthetic, we’re not designers of marketing tools, we not designers of landfill materials, we are designers; period. We are critical thinkers who can help provide less disease, better education, better housing, and better solutions. In the end, we can help.
And finally, a piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, about the challenges of attracting talented people into leadership roles in the NFP sector – ‘Searching for Jane Goodall‘:
A child was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. She said she wanted to work for the Red Cross. In shock, her teacher responded, “Oh no, dear. You are far too smart to work for a nonprofit!” True story. Ask college students who their social heroes are. “Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi . . .” Wait. How about someone who is alive? Silence.
So, why aren’t the smart people solving problems that matter? How can we encourage bright, talented, young people to want to work on social and environmental problems and not just consumer problems?