Big Data Could Produce McCity Dystopia
“In a hundred years from now,
They will attempt to tell us how
Scientific means to bliss
Will supersede the human kiss.”
-- Sting, “Straight To My Heart”
Have you gotten excited about Big Data yet? Retailers have. Business Insider says “Big Data Can Mean Big Returns In Retail.” In the run-up to the holidays, Forbes explained “Why Big Data Is All Retailers Want For Christmas.” Harvard Business Review says Data Scientist is “the sexiest job of the 21st century.” Big Data is the wave of the future.
And why wouldn’t it be? Who wouldn’t want to know real-time footfall patterns or be able to dynamically optimize pricing? Who wouldn’t get inappropriately turned on by the discovery that pink clothes sell better in the morning and blue clothes sell better in the afternoon? (Clothes retailers: I made that up. Please do not act on that information.)
The compulsion to know ever more about customer behavior is irresistible, entirely logical and of great value to retailers. But what is beneficial at the micro level can be detrimental at the macro level. A store that successfully applies Big Data insights can increase revenue and maximize efficiency. Take it too far, though, and you can lose touch with the humanity of your work.
Consider the modern pop music industry. Bands like One Direction and Little Mix are spat out from a formula, with decisions about songwriting and style based on market data rather than artistic merit. And although easily digested, mass-market consumer offerings have been around for ages, an overreliance on Big Data generates an unprecedented level of abstraction from the people at the other end of the equation, removing all sense of emotion, uniqueness, personality, resonance.
The more ubiquitous the application of data for decisions about inventory, merchandising, sales, etc., the more homogenized our shopping experience becomes. But while sophisticated big-box retail offers tremendous convenience, it delivers little delight.
The good news is that there will always be a market for those retailers who seek to speak to our souls. Against a backdrop of sameness, of displays carefully calibrated and formulated to manipulate, those retailers who fight to retain their individuality will be prized. If you visit Melbourne, Australia, you are likely to rave about its artsy alleyways and homespun eateries, but unlikely to tell your friends about its Ikea.
We don’t get excited about retailers who behave like poll-driven politicians. We get excited about retailers who make our souls sing. But it is easy to forget about souls when we have the information to optimize just… a… little… bit… more… The risk of Big Data is that, as a consumer-focused company, we forget everything but the numbers and fall prey to the seduction of statistics.
So this is the challenge: to crunch the data and retain our integrity, to accommodate the market while remaining connected to a sense of self, to balance the absolutely appropriate drive for increased revenues with a commitment to playing an essential role in a vibrant and creative ecosystem.
If we can do this, we will live in the best of both worlds. I hope we can.