Remember the movie The Minority Report? It is based upon a Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. Well, the movie is supposed to portray an implausible dystopian society of the future in which people’s consumer information is used to track their every move, and in which three precog individuals predict crime. Arrests are made before the crimes happen. Well, reality just got a little bit surreal a couple of weeks ago when the New York Times explained that Target learned through its data mining program that a teen girl was pregnant before her father knew. Charles Duhigg’s amazing article explained how the buying habits of women can predict whether or not they are pregnant with 90+% accuracy. According to the article, Target can also nail down the due date to within a few weeks.
Every time I read an account in the media about corporations like Target, Google and Amazon using my data to sell stuff to me and my kids, I hear a cheerful voice in the back of my head say “Hello, Mr. Yakimoto! Welcome back to The Gap, how did those assorted tank tops work out for you?” The story goes that a Target executive told Duhigg “Just wait. We’ll be sending you coupons for things you want before you even know you want them.” Does this sound at all just a little too familiar to anyone else?
Even Philip K. Dick didn’t picture the reality that is shaping itself in front of our eyes. He had to employ the MacGuffin of psychics before he could imagine the idea of a government or corporation predicting the behavior of its citizens. At least one Target executive believes they can do just that with only a really good algorithm and a server farm. I am just waiting for the day when someone gets arrested on charges of gun smuggling for purchasing camo-colored briefs, packing tape, a case of Busch beer and white out — apparently, in my fantasy world arms smugglers still use typewriters. Who knew?
Should Parents Worry?
How seriously should parents take it when corporations interact with their kids in this manner? Well, I am of two minds here. First off I am not someone who feels an urgent need to be totally off grid. I don’t try to hide my identity every time I make a purchase, and I do use shopping club programs at the grocery store. I like getting the coupons for things that I actually use rather than something random.
However, I don’t trust corporations, because my best interests are never their top priority. Now before you decide I have gone all tinfoil-hat on you, let me explain why I think this is a perfectly rational thought. (This is the same explanation I give in my personal finance book.) All corporations exist for one purpose, and that is to give money to their owners. If they stop providing profit they cease to exist. Where do they get all that money for their owners? From anyone they can convince to give it to them and that includes your children. Worse yet, publicly traded corporations have the express purpose of maximizing the profit they give to their owners (the stockholders). That means they are trying to take as much money as possible from you and your kids.
Now I am not trying to keep anyone from doing business with corporations. However, I do think it is wise to remember that corporations, especially public corporations, will never place your interests above their need for profit. Like a dementor, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy just aren’t in their nature. They take their job of extracting money from you and your kids very seriously, because their continued existence depends upon it. This pressure to make money tends to have a bad effect on corporate ethics. It is a sad truth that most corporations won’t hesitate to manipulate your children’s emotions or sense of self-worth in their quest to sell them a product. Just listen to any OnStar commercial on the radio and you know how far corporations will go to manipulate you. 911 calls? Really?
Every parent with their eyes open knows corporations have no scruples about what they advertise to children either. Just look at the constant push for children to purchase the latest and greatest toy on the average kid-friendly cable network, not to mention the unhealthy food. Now, I have no specific information on some kind of nefarious plot to use data mining to force more consumer products on my children, but I don’t have to. It is the nature of corporations to use any possible means to take money from me and my kids. I am sure that data mining aimed at my children must play into their strategy somewhere.
But does it really matter? For me it does. Children are still developing the ability to think critically for themselves. They are more easily influenced by the stories told to them than adults. (If you ever want to test this out, just try to contradict something their teacher at school taught them. It really poses a problem for the child to have two trustworthy adults say different things.) I have pointed out before that our belief in the high influence of stories on children is the bedrock behind much consumer regulation toward them. We restrict children’s access to movies, video games and graphic novels based on their content. Most parents have some boundaries when it comes to sex or violence. But I am amazed at how many parents hand their children over to corporate story tellers through media without a second thought. The very existence of these corporations depends upon making children “need” frivolous products. This seems to me to be an ideal way to create unhappy children, whose sense of value is based upon their consumer status.
Personally, I try to limit my children’s intake of corporate marketing in the same way I limit their intake of sex and violence. To me that is just good parenting. Now don’t get me wrong, I have already said that I don’t avoid all corporate data mining. So I don’t go overboard here, but I figure there will be plenty of time when my children become adults for Target and the like to scrutinize their buying habits in detail. They don’t need access to my kids right now.
What Practical Precautions Can We Take to Protect Our kids?
So aside from having our own precog around to tell us to “wait here for the balloons” and to “take the umbrella,” what can a parent do to make reasonable and modest precautions to protect their children and teach them to think critically in this world? Here are three thoughts:
1. If parents want to teach their children to navigate the world of corporate advertising, they must have a plan for doing so themselves. Americans are notoriously bad at personal finance. Most of us use some form of what I call the pile-o’-money budget plan. We pay the bills, and then everything else comes out of the pile-o’-money left over. This includes necessary items like food and lower priority items such as entertainment and impulse purchases. This leaves us incredibly vulnerable to the whims of our corporate overlords. All they have to do is dangle a coupon or discount in front of us for a product they have convinced us is desirable, and we will salivate just like Pavlov’s dog. If we want to teach our kids how to avoid being overly influenced by personalized advertising, the first thing we have to do is to quit letting our own money be controlled by the “oooooh, shiny” effect as well. We need to have a plan before we tell our kids to get one. Advertising loses much of its power when you have predetermined what you want your money to do for you before you spend it.
2. Next, data mining only works if the corporation has a way to connect the information they gather with a specific consumer. Here is where a parent can clearly help their children avoid being tagged and bagged by the corporate data mining system. Be wary of product based websites disguised as online adventures or games for children, especially if your children must register to participate. Here I suggest creating a superhero secret identity for your kids. You and your child can have fun making up this character, and that will help make sure they use it when they are online. When your child logs in as The Question Mark, at 555 Punctuation Avenue, Target or other organizations have no way to tie the information they gather with your child. I understand that some parents will worry about teaching their children to use deception. For me I have no qualms about teaching my children the difference between corporations which are not people and, well, people. If you are not comfortable with this type of deception, then your best bet is to monitor the amount of time your child spends on such sites, or better still keep them off any site where they must register to participate.
3. Finally, I am sure that Target has a file on my wife and me somewhere in its corporate servers. But what they didn’t know until now is that its information is outdated and woefully incomplete. How do I know this? Well, let’s step back a minute and ask how is it that Target knew to send advertising aimed at pregnant women to that teen girl? How did they have her address? And how did they they tie her purchases to that address? There are at least two ways that can happen. Either they convinced her to join some kind of shopping rewards program with a bar code which tracks her purchases, or she paid with some form of plastic, either a credit card or a debit card. Thank goodness she didn’t pay with cash, or it might have taken a lot longer for Dad to figure out what he had been missing!
If you really want to mess with the designs of the corporate data collection system, there is no better way to do so than to pay cash. This is doubly true if you want to protect children from corporate data collection. If you don’t want Target to be able to guess at the age of your kids, that H2O DVD and Justin Bieber CD better not be put on the credit card. Otherwise, when your tween daughter goes on Target.com to look for a new pair of skinny jeans, as soon as she hits the juniors clothing aisle, up will pop an ad for the latest and greatest Disney teen icon’s bad music telling her that to be cool she just has to have it.
This doesn’t even count the other great reasons to use cash, such as avoiding impulse shopping. The social science has been pretty consistent: if you want to spend your money well, it’s paper not plastic. One article in particular caught my eye. In a July 2011 article titled “Paying in Cash Keeps Us Healthy” Scientific American argued that recent studies showed no difference in the number of impulse buys between those who used credit cards and those who used debit cards when shopping for groceries. However, those who used cash bought significantly healthier food and avoided impulse purchases at a higher rate. (By the way, I would have titled that article “Does my Debit Card Make my Butt Look Fat?” Apparently the brutally honest answer is “yes.”) So besides messing with the corporate data collection system, teaching your children to shop with cash has the added benefit of making them better money managers than if they use plastic of any form.
Will these steps keep your children safe from corporate data mining and the associated advertising? Definitely not. Online purchases and clicks are too easily trackable, but should safety be the goal anyway? I am not sure that it should be. Like all things with children, I think moderation is the key. No reason to expose them unnecessarily to corporate data mining for the purposes of advertising. But the opposite danger is that I create a child who has little or no experience being targeted by marketing and so hasn’t developed the inner skepticism necessary to deflect it. My goal isn’t to exclude my children from the system, rather it is to minimize and contain their exposure. The three steps above can help.
There is another whole arena where corporate data mining has the potential to damage kids and adults that doesn’t have anything to do with getting them to purchase products. That will be the subject of a separate post soon.