Digital Marketing and the Personally Identifiable Information

Part I: Marketing and Psychoanalysis

It’s well known that Freud’s nephew, Edward Barnays, was a pioneering PR man, who traded freely on his family relations to claim a special knowledge of the other’s desire.  History hasn’t been kind to Barneys—his clumsy advice about how to manipulate the masses and his association with some of the CIA’s seamier covert actions are enough to tarnish any reputation—but what remains even more intact is an almost superstitious belief that, when it comes to sales and marketing, psychoanalysis is either a source of useless hocus-pocus, or the key to sinister methods, infiltrating our unconscious and manipulating our will.

If we can agree it’s neither, than perhaps we can get beyond stereotypical ad-men and cliched sales techniques.  There are more serious discussions of sales and marketing in psychoanalytic literature, but most tend towards the clumsy or the conspiratorial.  None would suggest how ultimately bad psychoanalysis itself would prove at its own sales and marketing.  Among pioneers in systems psychodynamics and socio-technical systems, sales and marketing receive some early attention—Rice and Miller devote two chapters of Systems of Organizationto sales, and Olya Khaleelee offers a case study—but then it’s mostly ignored.

Ultimately, it seems that psychoanalytically informed writers and researchers of organizational life would prefer to avoid the seamy undertones of sales and marketing, and thus play into a set of systemic projections and fantasies that lodge a system’s venal greed and shallow self-interest in sales and marketing, while letting the rest of the system off the hook.  Yet the dark side of organizational life is exactly where psychoanalysis offers some of its most profound insights, and by avoiding a serious consideration of sales and marketing, psychoanalysis has avoided really seeing the whole system for what it is.  It’s almost as if psychoanalysis itself has repressed its own ambivalence that pits its intellectual purity against its own self interest.  Can psychoanalysis desire its own success?

What is a psychoanalytic theory of its own value? How might psychoanalysis take its core questions about desire, otherness, anxiety and identity and use them to inform a theory of action in today’s world? If psychoanalysis is to be impactful, it can’t deny its participation in the world; rather, it has to offer its understanding of the world’s most venal parts–the inhumanity of greed, of manipulation, of the fear and viciousness and desperation in capitalism.

Part II: Marketing and PII

In its most recent incarnation, marketing has gone digital and our data has become its fuel.  This is well-trod ground by now (see the long discussions about whether Facebook is selling us products, or are we Facebook’s product).  But it’s important to remember what’s at stake.  Even the simplest targeting with predictive analytics has been shown to boost sales at retail outlets by a few percentage points ( see McKinsey’s AI report). 

This may seem benign–after all, we’ve been advertised to for decades (or centuries).  As it only targets a purchasing decision, it hasn’t seemed too insidious.  But there are two arguments against this: First, is one Jaron Laniermakes over and over again: since the range of choices is so vast, the filtering function (google’s algorithm; SEO; etc) is essentially making decisions for us.  It’s a monopolistic convergence of power and renders our freedom all the more illusory.  And a second argument against the case for benign advertising is this: it’s predicated on a level of surveillance that is qualitatively different than whatever ways consumer behavior may have been captured and utilized in previous eras.  Today, your entire personhood—your family relationships, your politics, your movements and your moves—can be bought and sold in the form of personally identifiable information (PII).  Unless you’re in digital marketing, it’s likely you have no idea how your movements are surveilled.  Marketing departments can identify traffic to their websites by IP and match IP ranges to corporate networks.  So, for example, a corporate LMS provider can see when they get a bump in web traffic coming from IP’s matched to General Motors or Wells Fargo, and then, in turn, target their marketing to those prospective clients.  This threatens to  become even more invasive as sensors go from measuring our steps to measuring our metabolism; from geolocating us to owning our genetic code.  All this isn’t just contained in your products and your accounts; it can be bought and sold and out of all control or knowability.

Marketing is the gatekeeper to our minds.  We ourselves are the product, measured, rationalized, and sold in bits and pieces to bidders for each aspect that can be linked to a behavior (increasingly, it doesn’t even matter whether that behavior is commercial in nature).  In that sense, marketing has become cyborg, but it’s also made us cyborg.  It’s become part of us—our mind, our desire, our biology and psychology.  It’s in our distributed cognition, our distributed desire.  In that sense, there’s a deep link between capitalism and our becoming-cyborg.  Something has to pay for the re-engineering of our biology, and if we’re not buying it, we’re being sold to pay for it.

Ultimately, our data–our PII–is part of our humanity: it is our property is much as our bodies are (the European Union is recognizing this in its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)–perhaps it helps that, in French, the etymology of “property” in “prôpre,” or ones selfhood, ones unique data, ones PII).  But only time will tell if it’s too late for regulation to have any effect on the complete surrender of our privacy.

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