“Of course, they’ve been predicting something like this for years,” says one person in every ten, smugly. Or alternatively “Actually it’s been around for years, it’s only just come out”. Everyone’s an expert. Medical science has predicted that a pandemic could be on the cards, yes. But which of us could have predicted that 2020 would have been the year of the loo roll?
That’s one of the fascinating things about using data to predict human behaviour. Social media, online shopping, what we buy, where we go, the form of transport we use and the media we consume creates data sets that are intended to create a profile of us, what we like, what we hate, who we hang out with and what we do. As individuals we like to imagine we’re mavericks. One-offs. Something being able to predict our behaviour can feel sinister or at the very least, make us feel slightly boring. We’re not one in a million, we’re one in a flock.
And yet there is something charming about it when it goes wrong. Say you’re online shopping for a new kitchen bin and the algorithm proudly announces that “other customers that bought that kitchen bin also bought a leopard print tent”. Same with your e-reader, when you’re ploughing through the latest Hilary Mantel and it decides to suggest that your next book should be a cowboy romance novel.
The fact that you’ve got no intention of buying a leopard print tent or reading a cowboy romance novel gives you a distinct sense of relief. You see? I AM a maverick. You don’t know EVERYTHING.
The fact that we are profiled and targeted to create patterns of behaviour should be there to provide us with a better experience. Remember Minority Report, the Tom Cruise film? The hero walks through a subway and the adverts change to target his specific needs. Not the needs of men like him, but him. This scenario is truly not far off.
To some people this represents the ultimate in manipulation and they have a point when it comes to political messaging. What data sets and complex analysis do not take into account, and cannot take into account, though, is mood. Humans are triggered by sounds, the mood of the people around us, what we’ve eaten, what we’ve seen, the music we’re listening to…how many of us have had our mood lifted by catching a long-forgotten song on the radio? Just that one jump in mood has changed the tone and altered every decision we’re going to make that day.
So there we are. The fact that we’re slightly more flighty creatures than some sinister computer overlord would like us to be is what will save us. That when we’re faced with a global pandemic that involves respiratory problems, we respond by buying loo roll and pasta. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going online to buy a leopard print tent.