Anatomy and Art

a blog by Sara Egner

What If (some thoughts before bed on data collection and marketing algorithms as a means of diagnosis)

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Last week I received a free sample of baby formula in the mail.  This week, the National Opinion Network’s Infant Division (I didn’t even make that title up, I swear) sent me a survey and says that they “value my experience as a parent.”  My best guess is that those diapers I bought on Amazon for a friend’s new baby have added me to the list of likely moms, and that I will be getting a first hand view at the kind of marketing that expectant mothers are bombarded with.  It’s kind of funny.  I am not now a parent, nor have I ever even had so much as a big pregnancy scare.

Tonight, a friend sent me this Forbes article in response to my recent misguided marketing attention.
http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/02/16/how-target-figured-out-a-teen-girl-was-pregnant-before-her-father-did/
And I have to say, as irritated as I am having my personal shopping sold to all these companies, I would be so much more so if I actually was pregnant and hadn’t chosen to tell people yet.  And then I got to thinking, what if all this marketing data analysis gets so good that they start predicting pregnancies by even smaller cues, even before a woman knows herself that she is pregnant?  What if they started catching on to trends in all kinds of health situations?  What if one’s shopping habits became a mechanism for diagnosing disease?  We may not be there now, but it’s not exactly an impossible thought.  As people move away from cash and further into more documented exchanges, what’s to say we won’t start noticing that people crave certain types of foods or spices when they are developing tumors or when their kidneys are beginning to fail.

My general tendency is to be frustrated with the level of monitoring that goes on in our day to day lives.  What we read online, what we purchase with a card, where our phones text and call from, what we say in those calls and texts or in emails, when we pass through toll roads, or sit at stop lights with cameras….  The list goes on.  But then sometimes I start to think that for all this privacy lost, perhaps we will start learning some really interesting things.  My inner cynic is certain that insurance companies will have a field day with that kind of information before individuals get to do much with it, but I also think that there is a great market for helping people to understand themselves better.  And while the idea of discovering a health condition through one’s shopping patterns seems a little weird, and frankly unideal, I mean my goodness consumer companies don’t do HIPAA, maybe these sorts of observed patterns will someday lead to better advanced indications for health concerns.  I guess time will tell.

And in the meantime, I will try to remain amused with my new mistaken parental identity, and not waste too much time shaking my fists over having my information sold to such lists.  And think of the old Shel Silverstein poem which begins, “Last night, while I lay thinking here, Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear, And pranced and partied all night long, And sang their same old Whatif song…”

**EDIT**  I just had to add in these bits about Google predicting flu outbreaks based on web searches coming from various areas…
http://www.advisory.com/Daily-Briefing/2012/01/13/Google-flu
http://www.google.org/flutrends/about/how.html

Written by Sara

October 22nd, 2013 at 12:04 am

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