Where Market Research & Literature Intersect – Big Data and Opting Out in Dave Eggers’ "The Circle"
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Where Market Research & Literature Intersect – Big Data and Opting Out in Dave Eggers’ "The Circle"

May 22, 2014

Martin Eichholz, PhD

Big Data was arguably the trendiest market research term in 2013, and it continues to remain popular – though thankfully treated with an increasingly healthy dose of realism about what it can actually achieve. However, despite this new realism market researchers and especially quanties like me tend to remain happy about getting our hands on massive amounts of data. And lots of these data are collected unobtrusively or overtly yet with rather well-hidden “opt out” features.

Big Data was arguably the trendiest market research term in 2013, and it continues to remain popular – though thankfully treated with an increasingly healthy dose of realism about what it can actually achieve.  However, despite this new realism market researchers and especially quanties like me tend to remain happy about getting our hands on massive amounts of data.  And lots of these data are collected unobtrusively or overtly yet with rather well-hidden “opt out” features. (You want to use that new Facebook feature?  To do so you’ll need to let the feature link to your location or share all your friends.)

Fittingly, “opting out” – the choice to refuse sharing one’s personal information and not to participate in today’s techsocial society – is one of the core concepts underlying Dave Egger’s not-as utopian-as-it-seems 2013 novel The Circle.  The book’s protagonist, Mae Holland, is a young girl who joins a Google-like company and quickly becomes the personification and poster child for complete transparency and constant sharing.  In the LA Review of Books, Susannah Luthi maintains that, “In the novel, transparency is justified through the buzziest buzzword, “community.” In the name of community, all infringements of individual rights are supported in the name of the common good.” Similarly, The New York TimesEllen Ullman summarizes that, “The company demands transparency in all things; two of its many slogans are SECRETS ARE LIES and PRIVACY IS THEFT. Anonymity is banished; everyone’s past is revealed; every­one’s present may be broadcast live in video and sound. Nothing recorded will ever be erased.

While researchers can easily come up with numerous benefits to having all kinds of easily available data (optimizing media plans through full access to web browsing habits; finding cures through understanding patterns of health problems!), it behooves us to take a step back and consider where these activities ultimately lead and what might be out of bounds.  Eggers’ book helps us in that regard by pushing transparency to the extreme, essentially outlawing opting out, and in the most dramatic scene destroying an existence because privacy has become impossible. As the NY Review of Book’s Margaret Atwood writes in her review of the novel, “What happens to us if we must be “on” all the time? Then we’re in the twenty-four-hour glare of the supervised prison. To live entirely in public is a form of solitary confinement.

So how much participation and sharing of personal information is acceptable?  When do we stop to collect data?  More ethically challenging, is it okay for people to opt out even if remaining “in” would rationally be better for them?  Are we accepting the refusal to share information even if we could make people healthier, help them be smarter shoppers, enable them to find more suitable partners, or save them money on investments?  There are no easy answers to these questions, but researchers across industries and academic institutions should at a minimum consider the potential implications of their analyses – especially if the outcomes can be used on an individual level.  As The New York TimesEllen Ullman adequately concludes,  “We might linger over what it means to surrender — voluntarily, even eagerly — the last shreds of one’s personal life.”

Martin Eichholz, PhD

Chief Insights Officer

As Chief Insights Officer, Martin is responsible for ensuring that Kelton continues to be best-in-class across all the methodologies in our toolbox. He brings 20 years of insights experience to this...

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