Trust me, I’m an historian
My history degree taught me a few things: the delights of a good lie-in, for example. Or the strategic use of "that’s not my period" to avoid answering questions about actual historical facts.
A third was the rule that every generation believes it is uniquely smart and scientific, and the previous lot were, by comparison, imbecilic, knuckle-dragging morons.
Take war. Every combatant in every battle since the year dot has comforted himself that, unlike yesteryear’s unfocused and (probably) illegal technology, the weapon at his fingertips is, quite literally, a ‘smart bomb’. No civilian casualities there. No sireee.
Then, some time later, a report will come out showing just how 'un-smart' the technology really was. Everything gets forgotten and the process starts again.
From precision bombing to precision marketing
So forgive me for harbouring the teensiest bit of cynicism at the big marketing buzz phrase of 2012: big data.
Big data is the idea that ever-growing datasets (social actions, web searches, public records etc), combined with increasingly powerful analytics, will lead to a new marketing nirvana of precision micro-targeting.
Effectively, it’s genotyping the consumer realm, and it’s got some real fans, as can be seen from this breathlessly excited article.
Now, I’m not saying there aren’t some interesting benefits and ways in which this data can be used. But the historian in me isn’t 100 per cent with the cheerleaders on this one.
Firstly, big data is still more logical, predictable and rational than the people it measures. People are weird. They do strange things in odd moods. How can big data really capture and, more importantly, accurately predict that?
Secondly, big data can just get it wrong. What do you do if your TiVO thinks you’re gay (and you’re not)?
Thirdly, big data is, well, small. People are social animals. Our buying habits follow the herd. Social signalling is what makes a brand such a powerful thing. If big data existed in all its micro-segmenting glory 100 years ago, would Coca-Cola still be around today?