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OPINION29 August 2013

Approaching the singularity

Opinion

The belief that technology will eventually supersede human intelligence is leading to a reductionist view of consumer behaviour, warns GfK’s Colin Strong.

The way we see the world is inevitably shaped by the tools that we use. Our forebear’s world was gradually shaped by the clock, which meant that they started comprehending the concepts of division and measurement. They began to see how the whole is composed of individual pieces which can in turn be further sub-divided. A similar case can be made for maps. As they developed, our minds went beyond the immediately visible in our landscape. We started seeing the world in increasingly abstract terms.

The changes in the tools that we used led to major developments in the way in which our culture thinks, propelling us out of the Middle Ages, into the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment. Arguably a similarly seismic movement is underway today, with computing and the internet being the tools that are not only revolutionising our society but are increasingly changing the way we think.

“Market research has historically provided a level of explanation that seems appropriate for consumer behaviour. But this is now under threat from a new and increasingly dominant paradigm shift promoted by ‘The Singularity’ that has a much more reductionist view of the world”

But is this as good a thing today as it was in the past? Not necessarily so, say authors such as Nicholas Carr and Evgeny Morozov. These two are the leading voices in a growing disquiet about the way in which the paradigm of technology is being applied to humans and our challenges.

Because when you start looking, our tendency to relate technology to the human condition seems to be everywhere. So, for example, a very powerful metaphor is that of the brain as a computer – or rather, that it’s a flawed version of the silicon alternative. This is vigorously promoted by ‘The Singularity’, a movement which has been highly successful in establishing the idea that technology will ultimately have far greater intelligence than humans, thus rendering our capabilities redundant. The movement is headed by Ray Kurzweil and has a ‘university’ based in California which is backed by many of the world’s leading technology companies.

This idea has been accepted to an astonishing degree, not only in business circles but also in mainstream media and our culture generally. And while ‘The Singularity’ between humans and machines is not due to arrive until 2045, the ‘computer as an enhanced brain’ is already an important and influential metaphor that is shaping the way we see the world and our expectations of what technology can deliver. In the process, it also shapes the way we see ourselves, diminishing the view we have of our own composition and capabilities.

The life organic
What makes us uniquely human is our contingency; the way we continually change in response to our environment. For example, research has shown that when we bring a long-term memory back into working memory it becomes a short-term memory again. When we then consolidate it, a host of new connections are made – so our brains are constantly changing and reshaping our memories. I personally like the metaphor of the brain as a compost heap. Our most recent experiences sit on the top on the heap but over time, they breakdown and get mixed in with other experiences. While some things take a long time to decompose others are quickly assimilated. On this basis, the notion that computers are able to properly capture the organic richness of the human condition starts to falter.

“The metaphor of the brain as a poor-quality computer is increasingly driving the notion that all we need is technological know-how in order to understand human behaviour. Taken to its logical conclusion, this calls into question the very need for market research”

Why does this matter? Because the metaphor of the brain as a poor-quality computer is increasingly driving the notion that all we need is technological know-how in order to understand human behaviour. And surely this implicit assumption is perpetuating a reductionist approach to the way in which we approach human behaviour. Which means there is a danger that the avalanche of digital data about our lives is used in a way that under-estimates the nature of the human condition. And this means that we fail to take the opportunity to analyse the data in ways that give us fresh insights and understanding.

If we take this to its logical conclusion, it calls into question the very need for market research. If we have a reductionist view of humans then there is little to explore beyond observed behaviours, which often have stable patterns associated with them.

But, of course, reductionist explanations are not always helpful. We don’t, for example, attempt to explain how human personality works by talking at the level of atoms and we typically don’t seek to explain the workings of society using our understanding of brain chemistry. There are obviously different levels of explanation that are required in different contexts. Market research has historically provided a level of explanation that seems appropriate for consumer behaviour. But this is now under threat from a new and increasingly dominant paradigm shift promoted by ‘The Singularity’ that has a much more reductionist view of the world.

Ready to fight?
Perhaps one of the weaknesses of the market research industry is our general unwillingness to make explicit the underlying, often unspoken, implicit models that guide our work. Sometimes our implicit models are clearly not sound – as an industry we often seem, for example, to cling onto the notion of ‘economic man’. But they can often also reflect a rich and diverse view of humans in the context of consumer behaviour, such as social models of humans, reflecting the cultural context in which we operate. The danger of not making our working models explicit is that when the mood changes we don’t really understand why our models cease to resonate in quite the same way. Because we often don’t have a strong debate about our guiding principles, we fail to update these where appropriate or challenge and defend them. And surely this is what is happening at the moment as the model of humans as flawed computers gains momentum.

The battle lines are increasingly being drawn between, on the one, side large-scale collection of personal data for the purposes of hyper-personal marketing and, on the other side, the market research industry, which collects then analyses data on an aggregate basis for the purposes of developing marketing strategy. And while we can argue that each has a place, sitting behind each approach is a very different model of human consumer behaviour. Surely there is a need for a more philosophical debate about which of these models is most useful because the winning paradigm will inevitably have very significant implications for the way we operate. The danger for the industry is that we don’t notice the battle that is raging until it is too late to do something about it.

Colin Strong is managing director of GfK Technology UK

3 Comments

6 years ago

great article. thought provoking and motivating. love the compost metaphor, too

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6 years ago

In many respects, the Singularity is already here.

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6 years ago

1. Almax has launched EyeSee mannequins that videos shoppers and categorises them for marketing purposes. The dolls read facial characteristics using cameras sited in their eyes, and determine age, gender and race to help with targeted marketing while customers are in the store. The dolls can be programmed to ignore members of staff, are being used by several retailers in Europe and the USA and may get ‘ears’ next to pick up customer comments about products. 2. The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) is being launched – which will study dangers posed by biotechnology, artificial life, nanotechnology and climate change. Despite being the subject of far-fetched fantasy, researchers said the concept of machines outsmarting us demanded mature attention. “The seriousness of these risks is difficult to assess, but that in itself seems a cause for concern, given how much is at stake,” the researchers wrote on a website set up for the centre.

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