Is it possible to figure out how we're being profiled online?
This past July, I spent a quality week getting rained out in a series of brainstorms by alpha data geeks at the Pacific Northwest BI & Analytics Summit in Rogue River, Oregon. Among the many things I failed to understand fully there was how much, or how well, we could know about how the commercial sites and services of the online world deal with us, based on what they gather about us, on the fly or over time, as we interact with them.
The short answer was "not much". But none of the experts I talked to said "Don't bother trying." On the contrary, the consensus was that the sums of data gathered by most companies are (in the words of one expert) "spaghetti balls" that are hard, if not possible, to unravel completely. More to my mission in life and work, they said it wouldn't hurt to have humans take some interest in the subject.
In fact, that was pretty much why I was invited there, as a Special Guest. My topic was "When customers are in full command of what companies do with their data—and data about them". As it says at that link, "The end of this story...is a new beginning for business, in a world where customers are fully in charge of their lives in the marketplace—both online and off: a world that was implicit in both the peer-to-peer design of the Internet and the nature of public markets in the pre-industrial world."
Obviously, this hasn't happened yet.
This became even more obvious during a break when I drove to our AirBnB nearby. By chance, my rental car radio was tuned to a program called From Scurvy to Surgery: The History Of Randomized Trials. It was an Innovation Hub interview with Andrew Leigh, Ph.D. (@ALeighMP), economist and member of the Australian Parliament, discussing his new book, Randomistas: How Radical Researchers Are Changing Our World (Yale University Press, 2018). At one point, Leigh reported that "One expert says, 'Every pixel on Amazon's home page has had to justify its existence through a randomized trial.'"
I thought, Wow. How much of my own experience of Amazon has been as a randomized test subject? And can I possibly be in anything even remotely close to full charge of my own life inside Amazon's vast silo?