Why Does Algorithmic Data Collection Make Us Anxious?

By Emily Carr                   

Looking back into history, the existence of algorithmic marketing techniques trace back to the earliest types of media platforms. Back before digital algorithms, certain flyers would be posted in certain neighbourhoods and not in others, and advertisements for certain kinds of goods or services would appear in certain genres of newspaper. The collection of information on individuals has always been used as an efficient and successful means for profit acquisition. In recent times, digital algorithms are used by powerful corporations like Amazon to expose individuals to personalized content, such as “What Else You Might Like” after making an online purchase.

Over the past decade, digital innovation has heightened and introduced many new and extreme uses of algorithmic data. We saw Trump’s election success get accused of being tied to an abuse of algorithmic data via Facebook and micro-targeted advertisement. We saw the rise of applications such as TikTok that specialize in using digital data to create content that is specifically targeted towards individual users’ personality, sense of humour, interests, hobbies, etc.

With such digital advancements, the level of anxiety that surrounds algorithmic marketing techniques has heightened vastly. People became concerned that Facebook’s Zuckerberg was ‘stealing their data’, that any sense of privacy has been abolished at the hands of data collection rooted in the use of social media. When the Chinese app TikTok quickly became extremely popular on an international level, many Unites States government officials made great efforts to have it banned or regulated in the United States on the basis that Chinese corporations are obtaining too much information about American citizens through their detailed algorithmic data collection.

There are two major arguments that oppose algorithmic digital marketing:

1. The data collected in algorithmic digital marketing by corporations is an invasion of privacy and an infringement on individuals’ rights.

While it is true that the information collected by corporations and used for profit is alarming, I argue not that privacy alone is the major or entire problem of this kind of technology or practice, but instead that the issue with algorithmic marketing is that it is a corporate-level invasion of individuals’ mentality, in present time and in the future. By gathering data on individuals and using that information to enhance and target digital marketing, corporations become able to dictate the content that individual minds are exposed to on a daily basis. This has always been the case in marketing – for example, watching a commercial on TV can expose us to influential marketing that we did not consent to, and effect our attitudes and behaviour. With algorithmic digital marketing, corporations have data to influence us in much more powerful and influential ways. Corporations that are able to predict my interests, relationship status, sexuality, sense of humour, etc. are also able to target me with their marketing in much stronger and more efficient ways than ever before. By collecting data, corporations can predict our thoughts and attitudes at any given time, and so it is safe to assume that they can determine or even control our thoughts, our attitudes, and of course our wallets.

2. If corporations are collecting information about an individual person as a means of increasing profit, then targeted individuals should benefit in some way.

One might respond to this argument in favour of corporate-level use of algorithmic data in digital marketing by arguing that the individuals being targeted by such practices do in fact benefit. One might say that by granting corporations access to individuals’ data, corporations gain the ability to make products more efficient for individuals and to market using content that is precise, specific, tailored to individuality.

While society might benefit in some ways from rigorous collection of their data, individuals cannot benefit a fair amount because the profit and social power being perpetually gained by corporations over individuals is much larger than the benefits that might trickle down into a given individual life. Arguments that deem targeted digital marketing as unproblematic overestimate the power of the individual will. As social beings, human beings can be easily influenced; this is why marketing is successful. This means that increasingly specific, targeted marketing holds a dangerous amount of power and control over the targeted individual will. Such advanced digital marketing surrenders individual control over one’s will for a product, their will for a trend, their will for a particular relationship, etc. at increasing levels.

My overarching argument here cautions that the use of algorithmic data in digital marketing might have dangerous consequences for individuals that are subject to it. Just like how people were texting on cell phones for years before texting and driving became illegal due to the learned dangers of such a practice, the legal regulation of algorithmic digital marketing might be too far behind technological innovation.

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