"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Art Of Manipulation–Big Data, Cookies, And A Silver Tongue

Few people understand their likes and dislikes.  Why some men prefer blondes, others brunettes; or why a woods or sunset is particularly evocative.  The paintings of Anselm Kiefer are chilling and frightening to some but grey, flat, and irritating to others who prefer the rectangularity, color, and intensity of Mondrian.  

                    Anselm Kiefer  www.ibiblio.org

Some tastes go back to childhood.  Grandma’s pot roast or pasta fazool.  Others are evocative of a particularly happy time or place.  Alu gobi is less about cauliflower, potatoes, fresh coriander, chili, and garam masala than The Light of Asia restaurant near Scindia Ghat in Varanasi.   Feijoada is more about Copacabana than black beans, spicy sausage, and pork.  An Argentinian parillada – grilled beef shanks, udder, intestines, liver, kidneys, and testicles - will always remind me of long, leisurely Sunday afternoons in Quito.


Selling today, thanks to intelligent software, cookies, and social media, has become highly personalized.   Google’s data mining engines scan emails, web searches, phone texts, and Facebook posts and and filter the billions of bits of information according to subscriber requests.  Not only can these powerful search algorithms find references to Brazil and Brazilian food, but thanks to ‘sentient software’ can assess how one feels about it.  

Large hotel chains like Marriott rely on customer satisfaction.   A bad experience in Hartford will convey to Orem; and any dissatisfaction with accommodations, food, service, or cadre must be caught early, rectified, and amends made to complaining customers.

Yet few hotel guests ever fill out customer satisfaction surveys, so information about their experience needs to be gathered indirectly.  Sentient, intelligent software applied to emails, texts, and social media posts can pick up telling references about recent stays.  The software programs are now so intelligent that they can decipher casual speech and slang; and interpret the most subtle emotions.
With this information Marriott can then target unhappy customers with pop-up ads, Facebook insertions, or even direct mail.   This personalization not only directs promotional material to specific client needs but adds affect.  The client who has been so targeted feels that Marriott cares enough to speak to her.

Intelligent software is becoming so sophisticated, that if individuals are public enough – i.e. surf the web and social media many hours a day; and email, text, and post at a high rate – companies can know more about their likes, dislikes, and preferences than even they do.  While a client may not consciously know where a particular taste in food, weather, clothes, women, or cars came from; if enough indirect references are made, recorded, and analyzed, an advertiser can not only promote the product but create a personalized, affective, context within which to sell it.

In a famous MIT face-off between the cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky and the Director of Research at Google, the question of how artificially intelligent language programs should be developed.  Chomsky argued that one had to first understand the nature of human language, its hardwiring in the brain, and the classic steps to its acquisition.  Chomsky had made his reputation on hypothesizing the innate language ability of all human beings, and his position was therefore not surprising.


Nonsense said the Google director.  All one has to do is to collect billions of examples of how language is used, and by analyzing the way Turkish, Russian, Telegu, Hmong, and a thousand other languages are spoken, the creation of artificial programs can easily follow.   Neurological or biochemical brain structures and composition are irrelevant to the task.  Simply collect, analyze, categorize, and apply.

In short, no psychiatrist is needed to discover where one’s emotional affect, preferences, and dislikes come from.  We leave enough traces of our feelings all over the Internet for anyone to find.
Big Data advocates have long predicted the demise of  experts, pundits, and commentators.  Research has shown conclusively that a million randomly-selected individuals will come up with more accurate predictions than any expert.  Betting markets – a more sophisticated tool of predictive analysis – are an example.  Tens of thousands of individuals bet on a particular outcome whether in politics, economics, world affairs, or finance; and the results are impressive.  Bettors outperform experts and polls by a wide margin. 

In other words, at the same time as marketers improve their intimate understanding of consumers; these same individuals enable the understanding of broad social, economic, and political trends.  It is a two-way street.

As a result, manipulative power becomes increasingly concentrated in those who have access to and who have learned how to mine big data and apply its lessons.  Not only advertisers but politicians can be increasingly effective in manipulating their audiences.   A candidate for public office who, thanks to big data, understands his constituents desires, fears, ambitions, and aspirations better than ever, can tailor-make his promotional materials, advertising, and stump speeches. 

Electoral results often surprise pollsters because voters often answer survey questions one way but vote another.   Survey questions are notoriously biased; but spontaneous expressions on the social media are not.  Analysis of personal texts will reveal far more subtle sentiments than can ever be captured in a representative sample.

The mining of highly personal information without the expressed consent of consumers/voters is unethical say many critics.  It is a violation of privacy if not civil rights.  Proponents disagree.  Consumers give up so-called rights to privacy when they go public.  It is no more unethical for Google to collect and sell personalized information than it is for Nielsen to sell its viewer survey results to NBC.

As importantly, consumers are complicit in this privacy-sharing.  Everyone knows that every mouse click is recorded, every Facebook post scanned, information on every purchase on e-Bay or Amazon scanned and noted.  No one is collecting this information against our wills.  We like cookies.  We are happy that those ads that do pop up have more and more relevance.  We are thankful for Netflix’ and Amazon’s suggestions.

Government not only has access to all that private companies do, but far more.  Government security agencies can requisition synthesized and raw data from phone companies, internet providers, website managers, and commercial companies, and they have legal access to private security camera data, traffic surveillance, and the vast amounts of information collected from their own security apparatus.
Is this cause for concern? The concentration of wealth, power, influence, and information in a few hands  has been a characteristic of society since the very first human settlements.  The most intelligent, able, strong, willful, aggressive, and savvy have always found ways to benefit from others; and today’s political and business leaders are no different.   In the past, there has been enough government pressure on industry to keep it in check; and enough public  pressure on government to limit overreaching and abuse.

In our current age of terrorism the public is quite happy to let government snoop; and we happily cede our privacy to commercial firms from whom we want to buy things.  In other words, while we may be concerned in principle about the abrogation of our civil rights, in practice we are not.
Big data aside, no discussion of The Art of Manipulation would be complete without talking about the art of charm, tournure de phrase, and the power of personal persuasion.  In tens of thousands of offices and homes, decisions are made thanks to attentive concern, warm, intimate affection, respect, and smiles.   As everyone knows, charm and a silver tongue will compensate for intelligence, righteousness, or logic every time.  

In big data terms, it is called closing the deal.  As much as a politicians or marketer may know about us from mining big data, he has to transform that information into a seductive, irresistible message.   Anyone endowed with both a rigorous intelligence, charm, and a silver tongue can do just about anything.  It is one thing to understand the aspirations, hopes, and fears of a potential customer; another thing altogether to make him desperate for what you have to sell.

‘Manipulation’ is perhaps an unfair term.  In both the social and economic marketplace, there is only supply and demand.   The seller does anything possible to convince the consumer to buy; and the consumer has the obligation to know enough to make an informed decision.   Anyone who is fooled by a snake oil salesman deserves it.

In any case, manipulation is what makes the world go ‘round, and it is a wonderful spectacle to watch.  The marketplace is one big circus with clowns, shills, bearded ladies, and a gullible public who love being tricked.  Politics, late-night advertising, Las Vegas, Hollywood, and the vaudeville stage are all under the big tent.  What’s not to like?

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