Welcome to Target — How May You Help Us?



A must-read for anyone curious about the stealthy creep of surveillance culture is Charles Duhigg's cover story in the current New York Times Magazine — an account of how Target has mastered the use of customer-data analytics to not only track but anticipate consumer behavior.

Of particular interest to the retail giant was luring people on the verge of becoming new parents. Impending parenthood is a disruptive enough event, the thinking went, that consumers' customary buying habits are in a rare state of flux. If Target could lure parents-to-be before the blessed event, its analytics experts felt certain it would secure customers for life once the new moms and dads were pressed for time and sleep — and hence susceptible to the siren song of one-stop shopping.

It's hardly a news flash that our spending habits say a lot about who we are: any online service that "recommends" to you is already using some variation on what the article describes. But as Duhigg suggests, based on our purchases, Target is able to pinpoint to a science not only who we are but who we're likely to become, in essence knowing us better than we know ourselves. (Check the coupons that come with your receipt and see how well they've got you figured out.) The anecdote already passing into legend from the story has a father going in to complain that Target was sending his high-school student daughter unbidden coupons for baby supplies, hence promoting teen pregnancy — only to find that the department store, through analysis of her recent purchases, already knew something he had yet to learn.

Americans shudder at the idea of secret police files, but think nothing of typing in their phone numbers or zip codes to get BOGO bags of Doritos, or a few cents off on gas. The profiles that result size us up more accurately than any Stasi or CIA stakeout ever could. In the culture Duhigg describes, what you buy is what you are. As columnist Felix Salmon writes, the freeze-out the author got from Target's PR department is in some ways the most interesting part of the article: Salmon says no one has shown him anything intristically negative about what Target's doing, but the company's response certainly makes you wonder.

Anyway, definitely give Duhigg's article a read. It shows that you might be able to hide something from your spouse, child or parents, but you have no secrets from your cashier.

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