Marketing’s New Calculus? Data mining and commodity fetishism

This week, NPR’s Marketplace spotlights “data mining.”

To be clear, the term data mining refers both to a process (the accumulation of demographic information through electronic interactions and transactions) and an industry (the firms that traffic in this demographic information, interpret it, and sell the results to large corporations such as Amazon or Netflix).

In last night’s spot, “Data mining pushes marketing to a new level,” Stacy Vanek Smith outlines what is clearly only the tip of the iceberg: By utilizing the advantages afforded by electronic, networked, and social media, we enter into what is essentially a Faustian pact. Information about consumers accumulates with every purchase, which is then bought and sold, in expansive data bundles, to the mad scientists of major corporations’ marketing departments. Ultimately, Vanek Smith concludes, we may be selling our privacy on a daily basis in exchange for convenience.

What really caught my attention in the brief piece was the following quote from Intellidyn CEO, Peter Harvey:

Marketing will move from static to dynamic. And then within dynamic, it will be the rate of change in how fast you can do it.

In a state that Harvey calls “dynamic marketing,” competition between the advertising wizards will depend on “the rate of change.” Hence the question of marketing’s calculus.

Vanek Smith interprets this point as “how fast you can make sense of it” — these juggernaut data sets — and therefore how quickly and accurately marketers can translate raw data into personalized recommendations that actually boost corporations’ sales.

So what does this look like? It is Amazon’s recommendations (“people who enjoyed… also liked…”), or Google’s ad banners, which draw directly from your emails, or even Peter Harvey’s ability to characterize the typical American tourist in Asia as “married, a farmer, ex-military and over 65.”

In his book, The Nervous System, Michael Taussig teases at a notion that he calls “the poetics of the commodity.” Without daring to define, I understand commodity poetics as the aesthetic systems that underwrite a commodity’s capacity to appear as a thing unto itself, or what Marx called “the fetishism of the commodity.” The poetics of the commodity are the changing cultural preferences that shroud a commodity’s congealed social history (labor, technology, the means of production) and conceal the contingency of its value (which is inscribed in and through political economy). These poetics ensure that value appears self-evident, non-arbitrary, and non-contingent.

In contemporary consumer culture, the poetics of the commodity are best illustrated by the myth that advertising has cemented, subtly but surely, in consumer thought: that consumption (commodities, services, travel, etc.) is necessary for self-realization, that we can define individual identity through participation in the economy.

Data mining invites new visions for personalized, “dynamic” marketing innovations, taking this lifestyle form of commodity poetics to a new level by attempting to perfectly tailor consumption’s relationship to self-realization.

The caveat is that it must run smoothly. When functioning correctly, personalized marketing is a “black box”: we know only that something (our demographic information or purchase history) has gone into it and that it gives an output; we can ignore the complex social negotiations and technological interrelations that are congealed in a simple computer-generated book recommendation on Amazon.

The black box comes into question, however, when the program spits out a bogus recommendation. For instance, “people who enjoyed The Shock Doctrine also liked Atlas Shrugged” — or any other example of misguided computer-generated recommendations. Such errors (that can really only be caught by humans) call attention to the arbitrariness that data mining (as a form of commodity poetics) attempts to conceal. After all, the very idea of data-mining is the opposite of the arbitrary — that advertising is suited to the consumer based on limitless data.

In other words, it fails to appeal to a consumer’s sense of self-realization and instead is only a blip of advertising, among thousands, that goes by everyday. At best, an alarm bell will ring for the strange socio-informatic histories that are embedded in everyday technological encounters.

All this leads me to the questions: Is the democratization of information that the internet and social media promised — but has only perhaps heralded — is this more true for corporations than it is for individuals? When was I given a choice about entering into this Faustian pact? Is it in the “terms and conditions” that I never read?

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