This entry was originally posted on December 22, 2012
A book review by John O'Farrell: Why it’s easy to lead sheep to the slaughterhouse or Hey, it’s really not as bad as I thought it was, at least not yet.
Why is it easy to lead sheep to the slaughterhouse? Two reasons: they are not intelligent creatures and they are ignorant of what awaits them inside.
While the direction the online advertising industry is going is no way a slaughterhouse we are being lead down a path with little to no knowledge of where we are going what is going on.
Fortunately we are intelligent humans, not sheep and ignorance on any subject, including what is happening with online advertising is a curable condition. The prescription: The Daily You, How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth by Joseph Turow.
Before I continue with this review I want to be clear that Joseph Turow, author and Professor of Communications at the Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania is not an anti-business privacy zealot. In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air he stated “I am not intrinsically against targeting. It is part of the world. The biggest problem we have is that we are clueless to how it works and we have no control over it. We don’t know where the categories come from or the stories about us and no ability to control how the stories are used.”
Joseph Turow’s hypothesis is that the advertising industry is “turning individual profiles into individual evaluations” and placing us, increasingly as personally identified individuals, into “reputation silos”. These reputation silos can have significant impact on individuals both in terms of what we all consider privacy (e.g. a business knowing about a medical condition we would not like to disclose) but also as how it can generate social discrimination in how we are treated by businesses (e.g. what airline seats would be made available to you) and greater society (e.g. how your neighbors perceive you) alike.
The Daily You sets out to “describe the brave new world that is the media-buying system, especially as it relates to the internet and emerging digital technologies.” Turow does this effectively in plain language that is well documented and clearly noted. He presents facts on the past and present and only offers speculation on the future. Six of the seven chapters are dedicated to educating the reader, without prejudice, on the online advertising industry with the seventh and last chapter ‘Beyond the “Creep” Factor’ dedicated to a discussion of policy and social issues related to online tracking.
In the closing chapter, ‘Beyond the “Creep” Factor’, Turow does a good job of providing practical guidance for individuals, industry and government on how to address these issues. One area that is of great importance is his discussion of the merits, faults and fallacies of the industry’s attempt at self-regulation.
One of the main fallacies that Turow debunks is that creep factor will become less creepy as “we get used to it” especially for current “young people” 18-24, who just don’t have the same level of concern about online privacy as “older people”.
This last point is a critical one. As Turow points out “at industry meetings one often hears internet practitioners claim that today’s privacy claims are confined to an older generation. The rising generation, they predict, will not have anywhere near the worries about privacy that their elders had – so tracking and targeting activities will have more freedom.” I have personally heard these claims from my colleagues and representatives of big data organizations. The digital advertising and marketing community is subjecting ourselves to “group think” and providing ourselves with what we want to hear, a de facto green light based on a myth; a myth that seems completely reasonable, not unlike the thought that the Earth was flat, a reasonable conclusion by only observing only what is visible to the naked eye.
You now may be asking why the “Or” part of this post’s title with the “Hey, it’s really not as bad as I thought it was, at least not yet.” Going into this book my suspicion that the level of ethically questionable (yet legal) treatment of privacy and personal information would have been at a greater level than it is. There are still ethical marketers out there who use tracking in a benign manner but the future holds real risk for all of us. In reading this book and at least being better informed on the matter we could collectively mitigate that risk.