Thursday, May 03, 2007

Freewill, Google, and Targeted Marketing

{ Audio this essay @ 8.5min @ 1.8MB } Recently it was revealed that Google has acquired (or is seeking to acquire) DoubleClick, a leading company in what is called behavioral targeted marketing. Here is a provocative quote from a recent article:
Google could potentially have access to not only the majority of the world’s search history but its browsing and e-commerce history as well. The company could know more about web surfers than they know about themselves.[1]
Naturally, the more one knows about a person, the easier it is to maneuver them to behave as you want. Google will now have unprecedented knowledge about about Internet usage habits; thus, Google will have unprecedented ease in maneuvering Internet users, which is to say virtually everyone in America if not elsewhere too. According to the latest figures of The Pew Internet & American Life Project, almost three-quarters of American adults go online:
"Our latest survey, fielded February 15 – April 6, 2006 shows that fully 73% of respondents (about 147 million adults) are Internet users, up from 66% (about 133 million adults) in our January 2005 survey"[2]
Naturally, if one could manipulate the spending habits of 73% of Americans, putting ethical considerations aside, then this would be a substantial profit windfall. However, this assumes that humans are strictly controlled by behavioral conditioning. Fortunately for you, and unfortunately for advertisers, this appears false, for it turns out that our minds are not just ways of talking about our behaviors as functions of environmental and genetic influences -- that would be pure and too simple Behaviorism:
Behaviorism, the doctrine, is committed in its fullest and most complete sense to the truth of the following three sets of claims.

1. Psychology is the science of behavior. Psychology is not the science of mind.
2. Behavior can be described and explained without making reference to mental events or to internal psychological processes.
3. The sources of behavior are external (in the environment), not internal (in the mind). In the course of theory development in psychology, if, somehow, mental terms or concepts are deployed in describing or explaining behavior, then either (a) these terms or concepts should be eliminated and replaced by behavioral terms or (b) they can and should be translated or paraphrased into behavioral concepts.[3]
It would take us too far afield to tease out the interrelationships of a full-blooded account of behaviorism, but one can see why advertisers so desperately wish it were true. Otherwise, if behaviorism is false, marketing agencies could not count on getting income for their manipulating skills, since there would be an inner explanatory cause for our behavior which is not lawfully describable or predictable. Put differently, marketing agencies must disdain the whole idea of consumers having a freewill; because, if there is such an inner generator of human action, then even in principle they could not count on marketing stimuli to yield the proper response.

Actually, I've overstated the case. The only thing completely unpredictable would be a truly random chain of events. Human action, as initiated by freewill, is not just random events. But human action, as initiated just by environmental and genetic influences, would be determinism. Thus, freewill is not random, nor is it determined.[4] So what is it? The truth is, I'm not sure.

Admittedly, at least some things about humans are predictable and follow lawful regularities. The whole discipline of sociology notes how people behave in patterned ways, and thus can predict such patterns under some circumstances:
The field [of sociology] offers a range of research techniques that can be applied to virtually any aspect of social life: street crime and delinquency, corporate downsizing, how people express emotions, welfare or education reform, how families differ and flourish, or problems of peace and war. Because sociology addresses the most challenging issues of our time, it is a rapidly expanding field whose potential is increasingly tapped by those who craft policies and create programs. Sociologists understand social inequality, patterns of behavior, forces for social change and resistance, and how social systems work.[5]
As luck (or design) would have it, humans have second order desires that compete with first order desires, thus things are not as dire as one might think. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt is famous for his analysis of first and second order desires. (And even more so for his analysis of bullshit.) What are these kinds of desires? Here's a quick summary:
First Order Desire: desires directed at an object. So, if I desire a soda, this is a first order desire. Second Order Desire: desires direct at desires. So if I desire not to fulfill my desire for a soda, this is a second order desire, since it is directed at another desire. Second Order Volition: a second order desire to act on a first order desire. With this vocabulary in mind, Frankfurt says that Freewill is acting on second-order volitions that the agent has "decisively identified with." In other words, if I have 2nd order volitions that I find to be truly representative of "who I am" then acting freely will require that I actually act upon those 2nd order volitions.
One can see the question gets pushed back to whether my second-order desires are controlled by genetics and environment. Sales and marketing teams for business also must attempt to influence second order desires. I might discover that I don't want a product, say an IPhone. But maybe I do want to be popular with my friends, or with members of the opposite sex, or with the upper-eschelon financial class of my city. Sales and marketing teams know that "style" often reflects social class, and if they can produce an item that attracts me on the the pure basis of design style, I might purchase on that attribute alone. I get the feeling that the various marketers showcased (for example) in Wired Magazine leverage second-order desires in their short consumer reviews of items.

A big worry is that Google might be able to statistically correlate my Internet browsing habits with my psychological profile in a way such that Google merchants don't just know my desires to buy product X, but introduce new desires altogether into my buying habits. Marketers have not mastered this, but enough information gathered over enough time by automated weighting algorithms seemingly could bridge the first- to second- order consumer choice barrier.

Perhaps even now there's already such an algorithm in operation. If it were me, I'd call it Project Pavlov.


[1] Rich Tehrani "Google Achieves Behavioral Targeting Nirvana" (Accessed 4/16/2007)

[2] "Internet Penetration and Impact" Pew Internet and American Life Project (Accessed 4/16/2007)

[3] "Behaviorism" Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Accessed 4/16/2007)

[4] Obviously, I'm not a compatibilist, but a libertarian when it comes to freewill. See "Compatibilism" and also "Incompatibilism" Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Accessed 4/17/2007)

[5] "What is Sociology?" American Sociological Association (Accessed 4/17/2007)

[6]"Compatibilism" [unnamed site] (Accessed 5/03/07)


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