Best read: are algorithms taking over our shopping decisions?

Grown-up women rolling around on the floor like sumo wrestlers for cut-price clothing. Shoved and yanked everywhere and huge queues at the cash registers. Black Friday. The day after Thanksgiving when Americans are already getting their Christmas shopping done with major discounts. This chaos is shifting increasingly more from shops to the internet. The Monday after Thanksgiving, Cyber Monday, encourages consumers to shop online. They’re already spending much more online than in a real store.

Eveline van Zeeland, columnist at IO, has also noted this trend. In last week’s best read story she talks about the advance of robotized consumerism. More and more purchases in the future will be made without human interaction. Van Zeeland writes that she is a fan of a society where human intelligence is supported by artificial intelligence if needed. Of course, you have to keep an eye on the ethical consequences. But it’s nonetheless a pretty cool trend, as you can read in her column.

Rens van der Vorst calls himself a technophilosopher and gives lectures and workshops about the impact of technology on society. He also wrote the book ‘Appen is het nieuwe roken’ (App-ing is the new smoking). He thinks we should think twice before entrusting our wallet to an algorithm: “It’s a recurring issue that we haven’t found an answer to as yet. What are values are at the core? Yours or those of the technology companies?”

Automating purchases

Ask Alexa or another smart speaker to order pizza and that’s what happens. “Very handy, the algorithm selects one for you from all of the pizza delivery services. Whereas if you place an order on your laptop, you have a wider choice and are much freer. We are increasingly leaving that choice in the hands of tech companies. In the future, an algorithm will already know what you want and your food will be ready for you when you’re hungry. That’s no longer such a weird idea.”

Van der Vorst also sees the dilemma: “See, recurring purchases such as coffee, toilet paper and things like that can best be left to an algorithm. That would be pretty straightforward if it’s done automatically. These infrastructures are already in place. Look at home delivery, and various supermarkets are also working on that. But this does mean that you give up privacy: you let an algorithm view what you’re buying. In return, you get the benefits of convenience. The question always remains how much privacy are you willing to give up. The closer such an algorithm is to you as a person, the better the assumptions and recommendations will be. But is that something we really should want?”

It’s all about the money

According to Van Der Vorst, consumers hardly have a proper look at the revenue model whereby user data is used as a means of payment. “That mindset is wrong. The data we generate is the raw material used by the Googles of this world by which they make predictions. And the more data they have from you, the better those predictions become. They earn their money from this because these predictions go to the highest bidder. This leads to social deprivation,” he explains. Because those highest bidders are not the supermarket on the corner, but companies with deep pockets and good SEO. “This principle is strictly about making money. Those Google machines are not programmed to support, but to sell. The way things are going now, you can count on it being a case of only the big players staying in the game, the winner takes all.

Worldview in code

This is also a trend that Suzanna Zuboff has outlined in her book ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism‘. Zuboff states that we are slaves to the data economy and that tech companies do everything in their power to model our behavior in order to make money from it. Van Der Vorst summarized the book: “A big fat book that you can barely get through, but it does contain an incredible amount of interesting information that everyone ought to know. Whether it will be as dystopian as she writes, I dare not say. But we are increasingly handing over our choices to algorithms.”

More on Zuboff’s book here

Airbnb, Uber and Tinder are all examples of how we let ourselves be supported by algorithms, all in the name of convenience. “But you know what I really don’t like about these kinds of platforms,” says Van der Vorst. “I just don’t know what’s behind them. It’s a type of worldview in code. I am not familiar with that vision and I certainly don’t know how it works. Is it inclusive? Does it work honestly? When you try to gain insight into how this mechanism works, you don’t get to see it at as it’s considered business-sensitive information. Nobody knows exactly how it works. The discussion about comprehensible AI is absolutely justified. But sometimes I wonder if we actually want that. The less we know, the more we seem to rely on algorithms.”

Does this make us less sociable as people? “Automating chores such as shopping gives you more time to spend with your family or do something with friends. But we’re increasingly caught up in a tech worldview shaped by socially awkward white men. Talking to someone in real life is exciting, so romance and love are automated via Tinder. But on the other hand: how many social interactions do you actually have in a supermarket?”

Tomorrow is good: 5 trends in consumer behavior that have a shadowy side

Consumers are the cornerstone of any organization’s existence. As an organization, you must work on devising solutions for issues that the consumers of tomorrow may run into in order to improve the lives of these future consumers. But what are these issues? I set off on a journey into the magical land of trend analysis and came across five trends in consumer behaviour that have a shadowy side. That shadowy side is something that we should shed a little light on. And when there is a shadowy side to something, then there’s something that needs to be polished up. As in, something can actually be done to make sure that tomorrow is good.

The addicted consumer

Whoa, we humans are slaves to addiction. Although some people are more susceptible to addiction than others, almost every person is sensitive to some form of addiction. For instance, we are sensitive to an addiction to media. Media outlets like Netflix are so quick in delivering the next episode, that it’s much more difficult for the average consumer to stop their media consumption than it is to maintain their media usage. You become addicted as a result.

Our social media consumption has often been associated with addiction in recent years. It has already been scientifically mapped out which personal characteristics fuel social media addiction. How social media addiction affects your satisfaction with your life. Or what the negative impact of social media addiction is on (school) performance. I could go on and on. Consequently, there are calls for us to regulate media consumption and to protect consumers from excessive media consumption.

The lonely consumer

Although our online world is characterized by words like ‘connection’ and ‘connectedness’, in reality we are gradually becoming more and more lonely. Instead of heading into town with your girlfriends to find a new dress, you simply browse through webshops on your own. You no longer venture out on a pub crawl anymore to find an exciting new love interest. You simply swipe through Tinder profiles. Loneliness caused by the impact of social media and the digital world is starting to surface to such an extent, that it is being referred to as a loneliness epidemic. There is an increasing need to ‘reconnect’ by seeking out actual physical and offline contact with each other again.

The minimalist consumer

Then there is one more trend that goes against our evolutionary roots as hunters and gatherers. While hunting and gathering may act as an impetus for more consumerism, we are now seeing more and more signs directed towards downsizing and minimalism. We build tiny houses, we reuse furniture and we hardly own any books, music albums or films. Minimalism has become a way of life for many.

Some minimalists not only filter their own consumer pattern in excessive ways, but also do that on behalf of others. And that’s where the shadowy side comes in. We are not talking about the minimalists who simply consider minimalism more aesthetically pleasing (e.g. fans of Scandinavian design). Nor the minimalists who for practical reasons aspire to a minimalist existence (e.g. which makes it easier for them to travel). But rather about the minimalists who aspire to nonconsumerism based on moral conviction with a focus on sustainability. Although, of course, there is nothing wrong with that moral conviction.

Many people share that conviction in principle. However, one may have some reservations about those minimalists who act as activists in their approach to others where flight shame, plastic shame or meat shame are concerned. There appears to be a razor-thin line between raising awareness or instilling feelings of shame on others. We should honestly ask ourselves whether we are making our society more appealing when we step over that line. Guilt and shame can certainly change behaviors. Nevertheless, the question remains whether there are not more charming roads to the Rome in question.

The nonmaterialistic consumer

A trend associated with that of minimalism is that of nonmaterialism. Nonmaterialistic consumers consume without any tangible consequence of that consumerism. On the one hand, nonmaterialism is the result of a changing pattern of consumerism. We prefer to spend our money on experiences and adventures rather than on products. On the other hand, we are replacing some products with subscriptions. We no longer buy a CD, but a subscription to Spotify instead.

Especially this second development is beginning to take on such significant proportions that we now speak of a ‘subscription economy’. Subscription models are penetrating markets, meaning that the relationship between provider and consumer is undergoing considerable change. Not only does this relationship become more long-term and stable, but is also characterized by a higher level of dependence. The more subscriptions, the less diversification in the consumer pattern and the greater the dependence on a number of behemoth corporations. From research carried out by McKinsey, it appears that consumers are indeed buying subscriptions en masse, yet only about 11% of them are fans of the subscription model.

The consumer robot

When it comes to consumers, we mean people. It’s almost time to change that mindset. As the consumer robot is gaining ground. For example, a study by Ericsson shows that 70% of consumers think that within three years virtual assistants will be making purchasing decisions for them. Some researchers have even gone a step further and claim that in a few years’ time, 85% of shopping behaviour will take place without human interaction. It is impossible to pin an exact number on this in the future, but the trend is very clear.

Personally I find this the one of most cool trends. I am a huge fan of a society where artificial intelligence provides human intelligence with support wherever possible. Of course, there is also a shadowy side to this trend. How do we integrate ethics into the purchasing decisions of a consumer robot? And how do we ensure that consumers are happy to entrust their wallets to a robot? Together with my research group, I’m working hard on designing solutions to these questions.

Tomorrow is good for our customers if we work on the shadowy side of these developments. When we brighten up something that is shadowy, turn negatives into positives and turn anything that’s a grey area into something that shines!