It can seem like there’s no escape from online tracking, predictive modeling, targeted advertising, and more, all intended to modify our behavior. Prediction and monetization of human behavior is definitely "in".
Some people see a problem with how it’s being done and who receives the value from this information economy of questionable legitimacy. Is it you and I who receive the value, gain the power, and have our interests promoted? On balance, no. The opposite happens. The vast majority of the value is captured by businesses like Google, Facebook, and thousands of other organizations.
There is a counter to surveillance capitalism, though. A vaccine for the disease. It’s possible to flip the script, turn the situation around, and pull ourselves out of this putrid swamp.
We can use their techniques for our own benefit
It’s possible for you and I to capture the value of behavior prediction for ourselves. Instead of digital information about us being voraciously vacuumed up by shadowy organizations, we can each capture it for our own benefit. Instead of organizations making predictions about our behavior in order to modify it for their benefit, we make those predictions ourselves and retain that benefit. Easily. Allow me to explain.
Let’s talk groceries
The key is to view our own behavior not as an impenetrable murk, but rather as an ongoing series of distinct actions or choices. Each of our distinct actions can be viewed as belonging to a specific type of activity. We each engage in thousands of different types of activity throughout our days and lives.
Going to the grocery store is something you probably do on a regular basis. Each time you get groceries is an action that extends the “got groceries” series. That’s a somewhat abstract type of activity, as “getting groceries” doesn’t define where you went, what you were planning to buy, or what you actually bought.
Let’s say you kept a digital record of each trip to the store. A basic timeline is all you need, with each trip represented as a time-stamp. The UI to achieve this is ridiculously simple, like a button. Using this timeline, a basic algorithm can make a rough prediction about when you’ll go next. If you normally go shopping twice a week and you went yesterday then you probably won’t go today. But when your last trip was five days ago, it’s a good bet that you will go today or tomorrow. That sort of thing.
Now, you can do this sort of digitization for any aspect of your life, down to any level of concrete detail or up to any level of abstract generality. Blinked, looked left, moved your left pinkie finger? Detailed and concrete, but not very interesting. Woke up in the morning, had fun, did work? Perhaps too abstract. But there’s a vast, useful middle that I’ll trust to your imagination.
It all changes when you own the information
The thing about this digitized grocery-getting prediction is that you own it. You get to decide how it’s used. The original information didn’t need to pass through an app over the Internet to be captured and re-sold to who-knows-who. It’s all yours.
If the national grocery chains got ahold of this legitimate prediction, they’d be able to choose the ideal time to hijack your search result page, spam your e-mail inbox, push a promoted tweet onto your Twitter feed, or put an ad on your Facebook timeline with offers and deals to get you into their store. Invasive, irritating, and possibly worse. But when you own this prediction, as simple as it is, many superior options become available.
You could have your regular grocery trip automatically penciled into your schedule (perhaps correlated with other activities or errands). You could share your likelihood of a trip at its particular time with your spouse, roommate, or even neighbors, helping to avoid duplicate trips or forgotten items. You could see that you’re going too frequently, which may be evidence of poor meal planning. Or see that you’re not going often enough, and thus not eating enough fresh unprocessed food (or depend on restaurants too much).
Keep in mind that these new possibilities arise from a single timeline of abstract events, each only a timestamp, all enabled by a UI as simple as a single button. It’s accessible to anyone. And nearly any programmer can implement it.
I can’t hope to enumerate all of the valuable possibilities, but it’s safe to say that they are improvements over what the grocers and advertising networks have in mind.
It gets better with more detail
Now let’s explore what more we can can do with greater grocery detail, and of course with predictions at any level of detail you care for from the many other facets of your life.
Each item you purchase at the store is also its own type of activity, and thus also a unique event stream from which digital predictions can be made. Peanut butter, kale, celery, and salsa will each have their own rough frequency of purchase; you might be surprised at how consistently repetitive your individual purchases are. And of course you’re not limited to simple timestamps. You’re free to also record price, quantity, and the store you bought from, opening up many more nuanced possibilities.
When you have the per-item predictions, you also have the beginnings of an automatic grocery list. At any point in time each item offers an estimate of when you’ll be re-purchasing it. All the items that are due soon? That’s your list. It could even be automatically emailed to your grocer (should they accept such email) and you’d find little fault in the fulfillment.
You could share your predictions into a pool of others’, enabling group bulk purchases. If you happened to also record price and purchase location, you could share that data with a group of others doing the same thing, and thus communicate amongst the group where the best prices are this week. How does a custom, per-person “flyer”, e-mailed only when it makes sense, sound?
The end of online advertising
Democratized, decentralized information capture and predictive ability like I’m talking about puts the screws to hostile advertising networks. See, now you have the best information about exactly what you want, when you’ll want it, and why. Perhaps even at what price you expect it and how far you’re willing to travel for it (or pay to have it delivered). This is all top-quality information. Information now exclusive to your benefit.
What good are the advertising networks when the information they have is comparatively crap? Their data vacuuming and invasive practices can be cut out entirely, replaced by algorithmic, API-based connection engines that deal with personally-generated, voluntarily provided, high quality information about interest and intent. A grocer might appreciate knowing that there’s a two-skid demand for peanut butter (or yogurt, or pasta sauce) at their Main St. location and thus offer a sale knowing they have a very high likelihood of selling everything they’ve ordered.
That’s only the beginning
Again, I can’t possibly enumerate all of the opportunities offered by legitimate, individual-owned, digitized predictions of this granular nature. Nor can I overstate the value of these opportunities to you as an individual or to society as a whole. It’s a new frontier and we’re all pioneers.
The general effect of these predictions, as long as you retain tight control over the data, is to help you solve your problems rather than to solve the revenue problems of businesses. Sharing grocery-buying details amongst our friends or community can help counteract rising food prices and manipulative grocer habits. It’s one example of thousands. Maintaining your own behavioral history — such as your grocery purchases — can give you a better idea of where your money is going and the nature of your diet. Knowing exactly what you’re doing is the first step to solving any problem.
While we might feel that there’s nothing we can do about deeply entrenched Surveillance Capitalism, that’s only a feeling. The reality is that we can use all of their techniques against them. It’s much easier and more accessible than you might have thought and the benefits are limited only by our imaginations.
Feel free to contact me if you’d like anything clarified or want to discuss further.