Did Big Data Lead Us Here?

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Yes, this is about the current state of politics in America, but rest assured I am not taking a political position on a forum that, gratefully and for the most part, has kept politics at arms length. Rather, as an active thinker and consultant on the topic of data and marketing technology, I am struggling with some very discomforting questions. What role has micro targeting and personalization played in creating the deeply divided America, and possibly world, we are seeing today?

For the uninitiated, personalization algorithms are everywhere and behind the scenes, based on data from what you consume they attempt to sell you more of that flavor. It may not be as noticeable when it comes to your preferred brand of hot sauce, but when it comes to ideas it has big impacts. Did we, in the hope of bringing highly targeted and personalized content contribute to the hardening of minds and hearts on both sides of this divided country?

I am NOT conclusively and exclusively putting the blame for the deep divisions on our use of data driven personalization. However, I think we need to begin to examine how much it contributed to the current situation and the lessons it has for the evolution of this powerful capability.

While the genesis of this question may be political, it applies in less conspicuous ways to our commercial endeavors as well. I have recently joined a firm with deep roots in brand and design because, gutturally, I felt that data and technology is incomplete and saw a home where data, brand and design could evolve together. With my colleagues, we have been exploring the concept of how to make technology more human and to give it a brand voice. I am very much in agreement with this view, but I am now also wondering how do we also inject openness and exploration and how does that balance with personalization?

I do not believe that this question can be solved with an adjustment to the algorithms. Understanding how our core motivations transform into our preferences and then ultimately behavior is still a challenge to understand.  Leveraging mostly behavioral data to personalize offers and content may provide sales lift today, but this model needs to be disrupted, badly. We need to take a broader view of what personalization means and how openness and possibility integrates into that definition. I look forward to contributing to that disruption as a businessperson but also as a father and devoted citizen.

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