Good lord on a tin bicycle business-humans love data don’t they? Even the word sends shivers of unmitigated delight down their collective spreadsheets. They collect, collate, sort, parse, manipulate and of course exploit it ad infinitum and ad nauseam. They don’t even care what kind it is, they’ll take it: Big data, small data, customer data, personal data, Lieutenant Commander Data… it doesn’t matter. It’s all manna from heaven for these practitioners of corporate voodoo.

This shouldn’t really be surprising. Data can be an extremely powerful tool for decision making and problem solving. For example, the trajectory and direction of a speeding bullet are very important pieces of data for one who may be in the path of said projectile. It should also be noted that the contact number for the local paramedics and a decent attorney represent equally useful pieces of data. But I digress.

Of course, as with statistics (which is categorized and parsed data), the knowledge gleaned from raw data is based more on interpretation and pattern recognition than on any fundamental truths that may lie within.

Everything we buy, every television show we watch, every ad we skip, every email we delete unopened, every breath we take, every move we make… it all gets added into the mix to create an overall picture of us. No longer a complex and sometimes contradictory sentient hunk of star-stuff – a collection of hopes, fears, dreams, desires and baseball statistics – we’re reduced and distilled down to a series of data points. Effectively, a pile of trivia about our habits and preferences.

Proponents of this process are quick to point out that our very behaviour proves the validity of Big Data. We’ve become rapacious consumers, with a seemingly bottomless appetite for the newest and shiniest things. Retailers are simply fulfilling customer needs, we’re told. This may be true to a certain extent, but at some point, marketing begins to lead and the consumer follows – the tail begins to wag the dog, so to speak. We’re evolving into something Darwin could never have foreseen, but that Ivan Pavlov, with his ringing bells and salivating dogs, would recognize instantly: Homo Consumerous.

In the 1920s Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and commonly known as the father of public relations, helped the tobacco industry overcome one of the biggest social taboos of the time: women smoking in public. Women were generally not allowed to smoke at all, and when they were, only in specially designated areas. Any woman caught smoking in public was arrested. This sounds absurd to us now (both gender-specific penalties for an otherwise common practice, and smoking for that matter) but such was the age.

During the 1929 Easter parade in New York City, Bernays had female models marching along with the rest of the floats, and at a specific point in the proceedings, he had them pull out and light Lucy Strike cigarettes, or as he called them, “Torches of Freedom.” It sounds ridiculous to us now, but at the time, attaching such a significant and meaningful concept to the idea of smoking – using evocative (and not yet beaten to death) words like “freedom” and directing them at a group who were systematically oppressed and restricted in nearly every area – he managed to change the social acceptability of smoking for women. The tobacco companies saw their profits increase, and women were given a powerful (if questionable) boost to their campaign for equality.

The difficulty here (aside from the obvious – “Congratulations women! You can now slowly kill yourselves too!”) is that the goal was to encourage women to smoke, to buy the product, not to improve gender equality.¬†Even women who might not have been inclined to smoke at the time might have been more likely to do so, if for no other reason than to exercise this new socially acceptable habit and bring themselves a step closer to a perceived sense of equality.

This practice still goes on, from mobile phones to coffee, and its powered by data. Understanding a human’s habits and motivations makes it far easier to design products that they’re likely to snap up like One Direction tickets at a junior high school. Add to that some good old fashioned psychology and before you know it we’re lining up out the door for a $6 “grande” cup of pretentious twaddle. Because “large” is just hopelessly pedestrian.

Don’t misunderstand me here my dear and long suffering reader. I think data is a good thing, and I truly believe marketing is capable of creating incredible change in the world – positive change. Understanding your customer better is a great way to reduce the waste of making products no one will buy, and it helps ensure that the things we DO buy will meet our needs. But like all tools, it can be (and often is) misused.

We may be evolving into Homo Consumerous, but unlike the hit and miss process of evolution, we possess the intellect and the wisdom to take control. The bell may ring, but salivating is a choice.

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