Acton Institute Powerblog

How “real” is a customized reality?

(Image credit: Associated Press)

The use of digital technology to market goods and services does more than just appeal to our tastes; it can also distort our perceptions and dislodge us from common ground. […]

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In a market economy, competition plays a crucial role. The capacity of both producers and consumers to outbid one another in selling and securing products allows for the optimal allocation of resources according to relative demand and supply. One aspect of commercial competition that has become more sophisticated over time is marketing.

Marketing is certainly a valid method of showcasing the merits of a product and providing information to convince the consumer of its value. In our virtual age, however, marketing seems less like a tool to help consumers meet their needs and more like an increasingly aggressive attempt to buy their attention.

As bestselling author Matthew Crawford articulates in his book The World Beyond Your Head, “We find ourselves the objects of attention-getting techniques that are not only pervasive, but increasingly well targeted.” Highly personalized ad campaigns based on detailed analyses of consumer interface data have become the norm. Social media platforms, search engines, news outlets, and other sites now provide finely customized experiences for different users. Setting the privacy conversation aside, one could concede that this perfectly individualized marketing is actually of benefit to us. Provided it’s used for nonmalicious purposes, a digital experience that responds exactly to your needs and interests is arguably a helpful and time-saving thing.

There is a deeper metaphysical concern here, however, related to the natures of truth, perception, and human connection.

Classically, truth is defined as correspondence to reality. Declaring something to be true means that it aligns with the way things actually are. Our perception of something has a truth-value insofar as it can be compared to the real world for verification, and the object of our perception remains outside ourselves.

Our experience of the real world is certainly colored by our subjective lens. While we may perceive that world differently, however, before the digital era the stuff “out there” (i.e., whatever is not the “self”) was at least presented in a universal form that did not cater to us under different guises. We could discuss an essay with a colleague and, while perhaps understanding the meaning of a phrase differently, know that we were grappling with the same content. We could observe together, in Crawford’s words, “the world encountered as something distinct from the self.”

The problem with personalized virtual marketing is that it packages a user experience too often cut loose from correspondence to the real world, instead providing an outlet to a solipsistic universe where our own perceptions become our “reality.”

How long before the same link takes two users to different webpages based on their disparate profiles? Before video and audio clips play different content depending on closely monitored tastes? This is not outside the realm of possibility. And as technology improves, we should especially be on our guard, aware of the financial motivation to increasingly individualize the digital experience, because as marketing continues to reshape itself into each consumer’s image, our interpersonal relationships will suffer.

Crawford warns that in a world where a “multiverse of private experiences is accessible … what is lost is the kind of public space that is required for a certain kind of sociability.” So much of being in relationship comes down to shared experience. That is why developed, mature relationships necessarily take time—time to experience the same things together. Relationships are augmented by the variety of viewpoints and perspectives that subjectivity allows, but the enriching nature of subjectivity requires that the content of the experience itself be the same for all perceivers. Otherwise, there is no common ground in either the subject or the object, and connection dies.

The essential character of interpersonal relationships and the damage that hyperindividualized marketing could inflict on them should guide our business ethics. There should be an element of moral consideration in the use of data analysis, marketing campaigns, and advertisements, one that respects the line between healthy competition and metaphysical exploitation.

As Crawford accurately observes, “The fact that we live together in a shared world, and do things together, is fundamental to the kind of beings we are.” The social nature of the human person is something that will never change. Safeguarding our need for collaboration, shared experience, and true communion in the face of a potentially fracturing virtual environment is a concern business executives and marketing experts should not ignore.

Sarah Negri

Sarah Negri is Project Coordinator for the Research Department at the Acton Institute.