When desktop publishing arrived on every PC, there was talk of the death of graphic design. The templates came pre-loaded on your machine so “anyone can do it.” Yet, 20 years later, graphic designers are more in-demand than ever before. Today, rumblings are beginning about how Big Data is going to reduce the importance of creative people.
Unless you’ve been in a cave, you’ve been hearing about the impact of Big Data. How it’s going to drive efficiency, personalization, etc. There have been numerous articles, including this one from Steve Lohr at the NYTimes. There are quotes like, “decisions will increasingly be based on data and analysis rather than on experience and intuition.” And corporations are eating it up. They see efficiencies in their media buys. Massive levels of personalization in their CRM programs. And there seems to be a misguided belief that all of this will somehow automate itself someday.
Some commentators have started to look at the darker side. Joseph Turow’s written a book about the lack of transparency of Big data, there’s a great excerpt from his Atlantic article here. Turow is looking at how consumers have no idea this is being done to them, how they have no control over it, etc. But the much more dangerous issue is the impending data discrimination that’s already begun. Content providers are , “performing a highly controversial form of social profiling and discrimination by customizing our media content on the basis of marketing reputations we don’t even know we have.” For example, the Google results I get are different than yours, even though we may have typed the same thing into the search box. As a friend of mine stated, “the web is a lot smaller to me now.”
And that is my biggest worry. As optimization progresses with content farms cranking out articles and videos targeted specifically to you, and “news” sites “optimize” which articles you see, we’re doing more than eliminating the serendipity of discovering something you didn’t know you were interested in, we’re effectively destroying everything that could be counted as a shared culture.
The fragmentation of media which started with cable and is now dramatically accelerating with big data optimization, is dividing us even more. The most obvious example is the red-state / blue-state divide in the US. I’m never forced to confront an opinion that I don’t agree with. I can limit my television to only networks and shows that reinforce my beliefs. I choose which sites to visit to get my “news”, and even on those sites, they’re customizing content to only show me things I believe. But politics is only the beginning. Virtually everything that could remotely be defined as “culture” is being sliced and diced so that you’re never challenged with anything new or unknown.
When homogeny of mass culture set in, we could always rely on the power of the internet to put something new, interesting and/or challenging in front of us. But we’re rushing headfirst to use the technology of the internet to effectively undermine its inherent promise. The genie is out of the bottle. It can’t be put back. However, I do believe there is hope.
In the midst of all this technology and optimization, there has also been dramatic rise in interest in behavioral economics. Mass awareness began with Freakonomics, which I worried was a one-off. But in virtually every airport, you can now find a copy of “Thinking Fast and Slow.” I apologize for the shorthand, but we’ve finally begun to realize that the vast majority of purchasing decisions are wildly irrational, and often emotional in nature. At the end of the day, human beings are wonderfully flawed. We can throw all the logical reasons in the world at them about why our product is best, but they’ll still make decisions based on some sort of short-cut emotional response.
There is going to be a HUGE amount of pressure to simply fill in the matrix of big data customization. And the easiest thing for a creative is to simply do what’s asked of us. So, there is the trick. Despite all the logical marketing machines we build for media efficiency, creatives still have to tap into the wildly wonderfully irrational things that make us human beings. We have so much more power in that which connects us vs. all the ways big data wants to divide us. The creatives (and agencies) that figure out how to leverage the shared humanity on top of the big data efficiency will rule the day.