Yesterday, while running a few errands, we stopped into three different retail stores and, upon arriving at the cash register at each place, I was asked similar questions: “Are you a preferred member? Can we have your email address to send you coupons? Phone number? What's your zip code? Are you saving five percent with your Target card today?” No, no, no, no, I mumbled at each stop, each time wondering, “Am I crazy?” Given the opportunity to save a few bucks, why wouldn't I?
This week I finished reading Charles Duhigg's book The Power of Habit. It was a revelation, the kind of book that I found myself talking about with the family at dinnertime, drawing diagrams, re-telling stories. It's the kind of book I can feel I will be coming back to over the years, trying to remember all the things I learned by reading it, wondering how I can apply them to my life. Duhigg argues that the vast majority of our behaviors are governed, not by rational decision-making, but by habits, long ingrained and long cultivated in our brains and muscles. He claims that most of what we do is automatic, in response to cues in our environments that dictate our behavior and promise certain outcomes. His ultimate point is, however, that any habit can be changed, that we are not victims of our environments, but masters of them, and that we must be held accountable for the habits that we know are destructive, but that we refuse to change.
Duhigg's book is divided into three parts, the first focused on habits in individuals, the second on the habits of companies, and the third on the habits of cultures. It was his chapter on the way retail giant Target uses personal information about its shoppers to predict and ultimately control their habits that sprang to mind while I was running my errands yesterday. See, Target, and other retail stores like it, maintains databases which it uses to build profiles of every shopper who walks in their doors. The more coupons you use, the more times you swipe your Target credit card, the more times you shop online, the easier it is for them to do this because by analyzing what products you buy and when you buy them, they can come up with a pretty accurate picture of who you are. They can tell if you're a homeowner, if you're pregnant, and if you have kids. They can start to predict what kind of cleaning products are going to appeal to you and what kind of toys are likely to end up in your cart. They can also buy information about you from companies who specialize in providing this kind of thing. These companies comb through even larger amounts of data from all kinds of sources and even eavesdrop on your online chat room conversations to try to figure out if you're dieting, interested in video games, or trying out a new hairstyle. Target's statisticians use all of this information to build a profile of you so that they can send coupons and marketing your way that will increase the chances that you actually walk through their doors, ready to spend money. This is why I got coupons in the mail from the grocery store down the street for butter and milk and bananas, not Lucky Charms and Twinkies. They know who they're dealing with here.
This freaks me out a little. I do not at all like the idea that out there exists a profile with my name on it that lets Target know, maybe even better than I do, what I'm likely to buy the next time I go shopping. I don't like the feeling of being watched and I really don't like the feeling of being used, of being a pawn in some big corporation's game. It makes me feel a bit like I'm walking through a midway, with all of the hawkers not only calling at me, trying to get me to throw their beanbags or shoot their guns, but calling my actual full legal name, and offering me prizes like jars of organic applesauce or really cute cardigan sweaters. It's almost freaky enough for me to cut up all my credit cards, never use another coupon again, and maybe even wear a baseball hat and sunglasses the next time I go grocery shopping.
But then I ask myself the question: how much should I really care? My fear of being pigeon-holed and profiled and made a pawn by corporate America is costing me money, at least five percent of my total bill every time I got to Target and possibly more other places. Just exactly how much money is my privacy worth? And aren't I overreacting anyway? I mean, Target, and Bed Bath and Beyond, and Michael's, and Amazon.com and others like them, they just want to help me find the things that I need, right? So what if they line their pockets a little, as long as I'm happy? They are just doing their jobs. Plus, as Duhigg argues, while I'm a creature of habit, and predictable habits at that, that doesn't mean that I'm helpless and unable to change those habits, nor does it mean that my habits reveal everything there is to know about me. Who cares what Target thinks they know?
And yet, we live in a culture that increasingly equates consumption with identity and encourages us to define ourselves by what we buy, and every piece of marketing beamed our way encourages us to think this way. This is a habit I want to avoid at all costs. We also live in a time when We The People are treated as the Product. Our eyes, our time is a commodity and everyone's trying to get their piece of us. That still makes me uncomfortable, uncomfortable enough to keep trying to opt out of the system, at least for the moment. Maybe its a futile, useless, even costly gesture, but any time I can wittingly avoid being a means to someone else's end, I think I will.