Big Data, Big Science, Market

Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent (1999)

I spent a good part of the day thinking about the New York Times Sunday Magazine article about how Target identifies and targets pregnant women in their second trimester based on purchase patterns. Lots of people wrote back at the NYT online site aghast at the practice, which I guess is pretty ghastly. Myself, I’m not so concerned or even bothered by the practice, even if the case in question is gross. And I’m not that bothered by the big data cognitive psychological science on which the marketing practice was designed.

What bothers me about the phenomenon in question are theoretical presuppositions upon which the science is based, theoretical presuppositions that mask themselves as empirical findings. The primary presupposition is that human subjects are merely bundles of habits and that the belief-sense in consciousness and free choice are merely illusory (as opposed to the more modest claims that non-conscious phenomena profoundly shape human subjectivity, and that much of what we ascribe to free will has been, in fact, determined by non-conscious, habitual motors). These are the claims that underlie the edifying assumption by management at Target that they know what you want before you know it yourself.

The most interesting thing about the story is the bad conscience over at Target. It suggests a gap between the theory and practice that puts the theory in action. First, management decided that they needed to obscure the fact that they were targeting pregnant women by hiding the products that the sought to market to them (vitamin supplements, baby care stuff) among other product placements (to make the diaper coupons look like a coincidence). Also, management decided to break off contact and refuse to cooperate with the NYT reporter working on the story.

The gap between theory and actual practice suggests that in the real world (as opposed to the more isolated laboratory setting), the conscious act to take notice and to take offense can muck up an otherwise perfect algorithm. So either they figured out that people are not simply gadgets –or they don’t like being treated that way. I would like to think there are “real world” limits to the actual practice of big science theory, research, and design about which its most avid theorist-practitioners do not take adequate note.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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