Away from the frontiers and mythology of Enlightenment, the meaning of ‘rationality’ (and hence ‘irrationality’) becomes difficult to pin down. You can resort to the otherworldly ideas of logic and mathematics floating free from all politics and culture. But the academic study of ‘rational choice’ makes little sense once diverted from the kinds of strategic problem – war and profit – it has long been tasked with solving. When we reflect on how we actually live, it becomes all the harder to identify what an ‘irrational’ action or choice might be. Smith wonders ‘whether an anthropologist external to our cultural world would, in studying us, be able to make sharp distinctions among the horoscope, the personality quiz and the credit rating’, or even be able to tell ‘whether we ourselves clearly understand how they differ’. Equally, it isn’t clear how one would distinguish between the scientific societies of the 17th century, to which so much subsequent progress is owed, and, say, a website dedicated to picking through the evidence that vaccines cause autism. Understood purely as ‘culture’ or as ‘behaviour’, rationality becomes ritual or (as the nudgers have it) habit, and ‘irrationality’ is just a pejorative term for the habits we consider bad.
Via Andrew Curry, some sort-of-good news: if you’ve ever suspected, as I certainly have, that the marketing industry is locked into a perpetual arms race with our ability to realise when we’re being marketed at, then the news that “behavioural scientists” (also known as shills) are starting to worry that “nudges” (also known as dark patterns) baked into commercial website design strategies are actually becoming counterproductive. Turns out that cynically treating people as manipulable money-dispensers and/or metricised attention machines makes people cynical about your motives. Who could have foreseen etc etc? *eyeroll*
Bonus points for this closing paragraph, with its disharmonic mixture of aggrieved intellectual nobility and incipient panic:
We should also consider our responsibilities as we use behavioral interventions. Marketers should design nudges with more than the transaction in mind, not only because it is ethical or because they will be more effective over time but also because they bear responsibility toward the practitioner community as a whole. We owe an allegiance to the public, but also to each other.
Translation: guys, tone it the fuck down, you’re blowing our collective cover!
Shoshana Zuboff’s back in town, and not a moment too soon:
By now [surveillance capitalism] no longer restricted to individual companies or even to the internet sector. It has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players. Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy…
“But does it scale?” Of course — indeed, scaling is all it does. “Smart Cities”, anyone?
Surveillance capitalism moves from a focus on individual users to a focus on populations, like cities, and eventually on society as a whole. Think of the capital that can be attracted to futures markets in which population predictions evolve to approximate certainty.
This has been a learning curve for surveillance capitalists, driven by competition over prediction products. First they learned that the more surplus the better the prediction, which led to economies of scale in supply efforts. Then they learned that the more varied the surplus the higher its predictive value. This new drive toward economies of scope sent them from the desktop to mobile, out into the world: your drive, run, shopping, search for a parking space, your blood and face, and always… location, location, location.
The evolution did not stop there. Ultimately they understood that the most predictive behavioural data comes from what I call “economies of action”, as systems are designed to intervene in the state of play and actually modify behaviour, shaping it toward desired commercial outcomes.