The other evening She Who Must Be Obeyed fielded an email from an online bookstore. She looked up and said to me, ‘You and your Neandertals!’
Years ago, I did an undergrad degree in anthropology. I’ve kept up with the paleontological side ever since. I’d used her account to buy a study of our closest relatives. Now she was getting offers to buy other books about Krog the Cave Man.
Not her interest, but the store thought it was.
Which begs a question. Everything we do online – everything with our phones, where we go and so forth – is tracked. What profile does that really build?
We can’t control adverts served up randomly (as administrator, I don’t see the ones that turn up on this blog, but I bet you do – I HOPE they’re OK).
Point being, there is a story I heard about some guy who clicked on an offensive pop-up advert to make it go away. Next thing, his social media page – which he’d logged out of – was reporting he’d looked at this site. Made him look dodgy.
So injustices happen – and yet the logic is impeccable. Account holder X bought such-and-such, so they must be interested in such-and-such, therefore we’ll serve them advertisements for more of it. Person Y clicked on pop-up Z, so they must have looked at it and been interested in the content.
Thing is, sometimes 1 + 1 doesn’t make 3. Marketers know what we do, but they don’t know the thinking behind it, or even necessarily whether it’s the same person, even.
This sort of 1 + 1 = 3 thinking is pretty common, historically. Assumptions are made about how people behave, or about why they behave, based on prevailing frameworks of thought – themselves framed by prevailing ideas and prejudices.
History is also littered with examples of it going wrong. In the medieval period, for instance, if a woman went near a cow and it sickened, there was a fair chance she might be burned as a witch. The logic was impeccable at the time – woman X went near the cow, the cow sickened and died, so she must have hexed it. Whole trials were held to prove the point, all pivoting on the proximity of the woman to the cow.
Mad, by our standards, but logical and obvious then, at least to some. The frightening part being that medieval Europe got there by ordinary, rational steps. Starting with: ‘If you are innocent, you have nothing to fear’.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013