Dostoevsky, Dr Dre, and Data
If you were to buy ‘Anna Karenina’ online, you would be told that people who bought Tolstoy’s classic also bought Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’. But if you've just read an 848 page epic Russian novel, do you really want your follow up to be a 1,008 page epic Russian novel? Maybe you want to read something very different next, maybe some contemporary American short stories, such as ’No one belongs here more than you’ by Miranda July? But you know, I don't think the classic-Russian-literature-reader ‘stereotype’ should concern us.
However, what if the choices that were presented to you weren’t based on consumer behaviour patterns but on your ethnicity?
Last week I received a flyer from one of the London mayoral candidates, which focused on my ‘Indian-ness'. The candidate is seeking my vote partly on the assumption that as a ‘British Indian’ (the category I always tick on official forms) I own a lot of expensive gold jewellery that he would protect from burglars and tax inspectors (burglars and tax inspectors, please take note - I don’t own any jewellery at all). My non ‘British Indian’ neighbours did not receive this flyer.
Also last week, Ars Technica reported that two very different trailers for the movie ‘Straight Outta Compton’ were shown to Facebook users based on their assumed ethnicity. If you were perceived to be white, the LA hip-hop group N.W.A were represented by the movie's promoters as ‘gangsta’ rappers. If you were perceived to be black or Hispanic, the trailer depicted Dr Dre and Ice Cube as artists and their music as political protest.
It should concern us greatly that a box we tick on an official form or an update we share on social media, feed into ‘big data’ algorithms that can make such crude and offensive judgments about us and indeed against us.
It enables politicians to try to manipulate our vote.
It enables marketeers to tap into what they perceive to be our values and tastes. In doing so they reinforce stereotypes and inadvertently cultivate prejudice – all to make a buck.
We need much better regulation, to protect us from our data being used so divisively. Without this, politicians and corporations will only get more sophisticated and subtle in how they manipulate our opinions, our values and our decisions.
By the way, I’ve never read any Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or July. I’m not telling you what I read. I wouldn’t want you making any assumptions about me.