Shopping In The Matrix

Surely by now you’ve heard about the 16 year old girl who started receiving pregnancy related coupons in the mail care of Target?  The ads enticed with discounts on formula, and diapers, omega 3’s and folic acid. Boy was her father pissed.  (The New York Times Magazine broke the story.)

He collected the glossy color flyers, got into his sturdy American car, and drove at breakneck speed to the local, massive Target a few miles away.  He had never been there before, so he was really grateful for the bullseye logo.

He stormed though the sliding glass doors, and demanded to see the manager, who promptly arrived for an inspiring paternal verbal lashing in front of an audience of his eager, debt-ladened, consumer-peers. The following is a dramatization:

“Why are these ads coming to our home in my daughter’s name? Are you trying to influence her to get pregnant? She’s 16! I don’t know what list you people put her on, but if you don’t remove her immediately, I will sue you for whatever I pay some high-priced lawyer to make up!” A smattering of golf-claps followed. But most of the stunned listeners began wondering what lists they were on. And so it seemed, justice was served…

Until the man drove home and promptly learned that his daughter was 4 and half months prego.  She hadn’t told her parents for obvious, albeit faulty, reasons.  And though the intimate secret had held in the close confines of their tightly knit, nuclear family, Target was completely in the know.

That’s because they have one of the most sophisticated “deep mining, predictive analytic” databases in the world. Their software had been tracking the young lady’s purchasing patterns over the years, and lo and behold, she had been consuming things that a woman 4 and half months pregnant and hiding it from her parents would be.

Data mining is now the focus of every tech-savvy entrepreneur from Silicon Valley to Beijing and beyond. How does one turn all those zeros and ones of what you buy, where you buy it, when you buy it and how often, into more profit? That’s the big money question ’cause it’s pretty much agreed that we need more profit, and more people buying more shit at all times, ad infinitum or nauseam, depending on your tolerance.

It’s both obvious and confounding how much can be gleaned about our lives from our shopping carts.  Start-ups are currently dedicating multiple zettabytes to capturing the seemingly banal data (about 300 billion DVD’s worth of info). But Target and its competitors in the free market aren’t the only ones in the “data harmonization” game. Politicians and power mongers have leapt into the pool with both feet.

Obama’s been on the bus since his first election. All those email addresses and twitter handles and Facebook profiles were saved, catalogued and dissected. And forever will be.  How they hope to “change the game” with it all is enumerated in a recent CNN expose on.

What’s becoming clearer and clearer is that although this trend is impossible to stop, we can play some defense that will, in the very least, make these tactics more transparent.

To begin, when the algorithm doesn’t detect an easily recognizable pattern in a profile, it pushes it down the priority list in favor of the ones it can categorize.  No sense wasting time on a thousand piece puzzle when one with twenty pieces is staring at you in the CPU.

With that said, here’s a few simple suggestions for how to buy yourself some time and fuck up the crunchers and profit mongers looking to manipulate you in every possible way for their own gain– and have fun while doing it.

1. Take pride in your aberrations. For everything you must buy that betrays something personal about you (i.e. birth control pills, Rogaine) throw in something that makes no sense whatsoever, i.e. a high heat spatula (for guys), or Armor All (for gals!) The more random shit you add, the harder it will be to make sense of it mathematically.

2. Cancel your credit cards and apply for new ones once a year. You may think this is a total pain in the ass, as you have all kinds of pre-existing automated bill paying, but what really is the cost of privacy? A day updating it all? Not a terrible price. When you get a new card, a new data thread starts. Newer card info is ranked lower (less valuable) than one that’s gone unchanged for ten years.  That customer is an open book.  If you can’t cancel them, use different ones at the same place and it will delay the process, albeit give them more data on you.

3. Lie on all personal information survey’s. Every time I’m forced to fill out some kind of profile before I can get what I want– and it’s happening more and more– I bullshit! I lie with impunity about my age, my race and if I’m feeling frisky, my sex. I like to go about twenty years old or younger than I am, and choose my ethnicity based on where I’d most like to vacation. My last profile request came from Costco. I told them I was a retired Tongan ruby player living with another man. Like clockwork, the next mailer I received from them had coupons for sun tan lotion, sandals, coconut water and I swear to god, kitchen tongs

4. Declare bankruptcy. Nothing will stop direct marketing faster than saying you have no fucking money.

Hope these help. We’re all in this together. And remember, just because Big Brother is always watching, doesn’t mean he’s got the slightest clue what to do with all the information.

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