The Big Data Creep Show

Ok, so the ability to amass and analyze huge amounts of data, about supply and demand, astronomical happenings, terrorists, demographic trends, you name it, is a boon and a wonder. Until it gets down to the individual.

When it’s you or I being subjected to data gathering and probing and parsing its about as welcome as a surprise colonoscopy. It can seem like a visceral invasion of privacy.
I suppose it would be even more troubling if the insights were frighteningly penetrating and revealing, but so far the sifting of our lives is not only intrusive but ill-informed. By now you’d think Big Brother, who sees all and knows all, would have us pegged, but based on the woo that data miners pitch in my direction they haven’t got a clue about me.

For example, I regularly get customized suggestions and solicitations to come buy a new set of wheels. This in undoubtedly based on the knowledge that I am driving a 16-year-old clunker, which according to the auto actuarial table ought to have been dead and buried long ago. Thus, I must be ripe for exploitation, an easy mark for sales pitches.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, insofar as I am capable of liking a car, I like the old dog I drive. It’s comfortable and hasn’t required a lot of maintenance and hasn’t got as many miles on it as it’s age would suggest. Furthermore, I loath the fact that modern life compels me to own a car, insure a car, register a car, gas up a car and drive a car.

If I were king, I would greatly prefer a city with handy mass transit or a village where everything would be within walking distance. Failing that, I’d take a chauffeur. In other words, I am immune to the lust for a new car, a vintage car, a hot car or a sensible car. My goal in life is to have my current car live longer than I do, so I never have to exchange a syllable with another car salesman. Put that in your extended warranty and smoke it, Big Data.

And then there are the pitches routed to me from politicians who are absolutely sure I m going to vote for them or contribute to their cause. Undoubtedly I am on their mailing lists because of my age, race, gender, address, and presumed socioeconomic status.

Yet if they really knew me, they would surely understand that I disagree with them on almost every issue and wish them ill. Each time they send me a questionnaire with plea for a contribution and a vote, I make it my business to send back their empty free return postage envelope, just in hopes of costing them forty-nine cents. Strike Two, Big Dumb Data and your crude assumptions.

Amazon, which one would suppose is the epicenter of Big Data, and which I use cheerfully, enthusiastically and often, nevertheless seems confused about my wants and desires. I get red alert mails every time a new book is forthcoming from an author I have read in the past. This is actually useful and gratifying when I am a fan of the writer. Good job, B.D.

But Amazon makes no distinction between one purchase and another because it doesn’t really know what I like or what motivates my buying behavior. It is just as sure forthcoming books by authors I have read, hated and vowed never to read again will interest me. And since I once ordered a toaster or a waffle iron as a wedding gift, I am assumed to be in need of alerts on all deals concerning kitchen appliances. I have also occasionally ordered books and music for others, so Amazon believes I have a burning interest in romance novelists and girl groups I have never heard of.

The worst assaults by Big Dumb Data can be those based on demographics alone. Obviously my age is known and for years before any plausible retirement data I was subjected to a blizzard of earnest suggestions about how I could beggar myself in old age by purchasing second homes, retirement homes, sad lodgings in retirement villages or extended care facilities.

It was assumed I was in need of second mortgages, reverse mortgages, lasik surgery, diabetes supplies, catheters, Medicare supplemental plans, walkers, retirement planning and estate planning. I have wanted and desired none of the above and have been miffed by the implicit assumption behind much of the condescending prose aimed my way that I was now sufficiently feeble-minded to fall for such cons.

The last straw may have arrived in my mailbox within the last week. In a creamy envelope comes a missive resembling an oversize greeting card. It is an invitation. It is entitled Dignity and says “You’re Personally Invited to a seminar with complimentary meal. This is illustrated with a luscious looking photo of spaghetti with marinara sauce topped by a perfect sprig of basil. So what are they selling me if I take advantage of this offer of free meal at a chain restaurant?

A FUNERAL! Big Data has decided I am still well enough to eat a free plate of pasta, but that I am close enough to death’s door to want to wash in down with embalming fluid. Door prizes are also part of the offer. What might they be? Cut rate morphine drips? A complimentary floral tribute? And what could be more enticing than a last meal with a whole roomful of nearly comatose codgers who have signed up for a discussion of why I should prepay my last rites.

I was momentarily be tempted to attend just to see what kind of masochists would turn up for this kind of elder abuse, but I assumed they must be hungry for either free food or companionship. I am not yet that desperate, indeed I would rather die. Except then I’d be back in the clutches of the very people who have just expressed so much interest in getting custody of my still warm body.

My takeaway is that this kind of data-based marketing may be annoying, but it is also so primitive, transparently self-serving and off base that we all ought to be grateful. Someday soon they may be able to read our minds, the better to pick our pockets, but for the time being humans remain more unpredictable, oddball and eccentric than Big Data can fathom.

In order to fend off all future callers that Big Data sends my way, I am thinking of putting a recorded message on my answering machine, a Ray Charles favorite, to serve as a reply to all telemarketing jackals who think they’ve got my number.

“Anyone can tell, you think you know me well, but you don’t know me.”

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