Nineteen Eighty-Four is George Orwell's masterpiece – a dark fable that anticipated "the surveillance society" by several decades. In the book, the Proles (ordinary citizens) of Airstrip One (Great Britain) are subjugated by a totalitarian state, headed by the ubiquitous Big Brother. The state controls every aspect of citizen's lives – and monitors their every waking moment, every public and private conversation - through the telescreen, or two-way TV.
I read a lot of technology industry commentary and analysis. Most of it, like this blog, is rather less profound and rather less well written than is Nineteen Eighty-Four. Sadly, much of it is variously bland, vacuous, or laughably partisan. Some of it is, in a weirdly triumphantly echo of the Newspeak that forms an important backdrop to Orwell's greatest novel, all three, simultaneously. And so it is very refreshing to stumble over genuinely thought-provoking and well-written material, like this quote from Terence Craig, author of Privacy And Big Data, that I recently came across –
"It seems that we are back where we started. Historically, as small tribes of hunter and gatherers we had no concept of privacy. Then, as we became rooted in towns and villages, we continued to live primarily in the public square where everyone "knew our business." With industrialization and the development of large dense urban areas, privacy was possible for the more privileged members of society and then, finally, for all of us. We have come full circle. Again, we live our lives in a public, although now digital, square where any person, company, or organization around the world can watch us, whether we want them to or not. There is more known about us than ever before. What does privacy mean in the world we now live in? This is not the first time (and certainly won't be the last) that technology has leapfrogged ethics, bringing us to the age-old question of what we can do versus what we should do. The question we should all be asking ourselves, our communities, our societies, and our leaders is this: does privacy still matter in the digital age? Yes, privacy still matters in this age of big data and digital devices. But what it means, how we regulate and enforce it, what we are willing to give up for it, how much power we give our governments over it, remains to be seen. Like it or not, we live in interesting times."
Wow. If "any person, company, or organization around the world can watch us, whether we want them to or not", then Big Brother really is here – and he has been joined by his Big Corporate Cousins.
Craig can, I think, be forgiven for his slight hyperbole. And he raises important questions – and questions that reverberated strongly with me personally.
The reason, I think, that this passage resonated so strongly with me was that the language that Craig uses is almost exactly the same as that which my management used when I was starting my career in Information Technology in general – and in customer analytics, in particular - in UK Grocery Retail nearly two decades ago. Those senior managers typically articulated their thinking something like this –
Once-upon-a-time, when customers shopped at the corner store (for my Trans-Atlantic friends, a "corner store" is British-English for "neighbourhood store"), the Grocer knew his or her customers – and their needs, wants and desires – and could make intelligent recommendations based on that knowledge. "Big box" supermarkets provided economies of scale that reduced prices for consumers, but what we might call "Retailing Intimacy" was lost. We will induce customers to share their data with us, so that we can get to know them better again - and make intelligent recommendations to them – by introducing a loyalty card that rewards customers for shopping with us and for identifying themselves to us when they do.
Whether you regard the acquisition and exploitation of data in this way as "net positive" or "net negative" somewhat depends both on your perspective and how well it is done. I remember listening to an oral history on BBC Radio 4 some years ago in which a now elderly woman described how liberating she found the experience of shopping in the new post-war British supermarkets as a young newly-wed, freed by relatively anonymous checkout queues from having to explain to a man old enough to be her Father at her local store what she was cooking for her new husband that evening, and why. By contrast, I regularly receive exceptional service from some of the organizations with whom I have established an intimate relationship through sharing of data – Teradata customers Apple, HSBC and Sainsbury's among them – and I could certainly use more intelligent customer service from some of the other organizations that I regularly do business with, and whose practices and use of analytics are evidently rather less mature. Including, incidentally, but not limited to, Her Majesty's Government.
There can be no question, however, that these techniques are incredibly powerful, as the recent story run in Forbes and entitled "How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did" should remind us, if indeed, we needed any reminder.
Arguably, though, many organizations have not always done a good job of explaining to their customers what they are doing in this respect, and why it is critical to providing enhanced levels of customer service, whilst preserving the economies of scale that most of us value so highly. That management explanation that I quoted earlier in this piece for the un-named UK Grocery Retailer's motivation for introducing a customer loyalty programme – and that was provided to me as an employee of that organization all those years ago - was never spelled-out in the same way for the organization's customers. That lack of transparency is increasingly becoming a problem for all sorts of organizations in very many different industries, who risk losing their customer's trust – and ultimately their consent – for the ways in which they are exploiting the data that they capture.
For me, our current situation is neatly summed-up in two more quotes.
The first is from an Internet user, known to me at least only as blue_beetle, who was widely quoted recently as saying of services like Gmail, Facebook and the rest, whose business model is based on the collection and analysis of data about all of us: "if you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product".
The second is from Paul Polman, CEO of Unilver, who said: "if they can bring the Egyptian government down in six weeks, they can bring us down in nanoseconds".
The reality – as Polman apparently understands very well - is that Web 2.0 consumers are far from powerless Proles, ripe for subjugation by all-seeing, all-knowing, faceless Big Cousin Corporations. In fact we will all be losers if the companies that serve us every day are made dumber because they are prevented from analyzing data about all of us to better understand our unfulfilled wants-and-needs - and to improve their customer service and the efficiency of their operations. And it is for precisely this reason that many of them owe us – and their shareholders - better explanations about what they are doing, and how and why they are doing it.
Director of Platform & Solutions Marketing