Your Personal Data Store

Register now

A couple of weekend observations have just reminded me how vastly digestible my life is becoming to merchants (and surely to society's overseers as well).

The first came during a domestic trip to the Super Target store to replace a small steel pot that had broken six weeks after I bought it. With no box or receipt, I figured chances of a refund for a charred item with a broken handle were slim, but at least I'd show them their shoddy product.

The clerk told me to grab a like unit off the shelf and asked for my credit card. "It could have been three," I said, handing her my American Express, MasterCard and debit cards.

She scanned the SKU of the pot and then my cards.

First, the American Express. "Nope," she said in the time it takes an 18-year-old to say whether she liked a movie.

"Nope," to the debit card, seemingly while she was still pulling it through the reader.

Then, "Yep," as she swiped the last card and the MasterCard transaction appeared on the monitor as fast as you'd see your reflection in a mirror. There was the pot, along with the socks and detergent I'd bought back around Thanksgiving.

I'm accustomed to impressive technology and didn't know whether she was querying six weeks or a year's worth of transactions from just one teeming Super Target or the whole country, but it didn't matter. I was almost shocked.

Then I thought rhetorically, hmmm, that information didn't come off of a rack of disk drives, did it?

When you spend your weekdays learning and talking about technology and the newfound ubiquitous data in our commerce and culture, it's sometimes possible to forget you are also part of the food chain.

Chastened by this display of random-access memory and online transactional processing, I took my new pot home and set it to boil. I sat down to read Tom Friedman's New York Times column about the IT and data revolution that is replacing so many manufacturing tasks and gofer jobs that no longer call for human labor.

Friedman cited the Presto, an M.I.T developed, tableside ordering tablet with full menu options for diners who'd no longer need waiters to do anything but schlep plates to a table.

Waiting tables is a noble and useful profession I've practiced myself. It's easy to tell a good waiter from a bad one and it would be pretty sad to see even this personal service job go away.

My next thought was, oh my gosh, can you imagine how much data these tablets are going to be generating? Preferences, calories, dressing on the side, all tied to the credit card you bought them with. (This already happens when you buy food at the bar.) We do it to manage inventory and expedite work, why not market to customers in real time as well?

I can understand a little better what makes some people paranoid about matching marketing analytics -- not to mention bureaucrats and policies -- to the human condition. I can't remember where, but I did read that it is feasible for an actuary to model a person's likelihood to contract diabetes by GPS and the amount of time spent at the ice cream store versus the health club.

Not everyone thinks this is all bad. A column co-written by  corporate founder Mark P. Mills and Northwestern University professor Julio M. Ottino in today's Wall Street Journal (who else would be so sunny?) says that big data, along with mobility and smart manufacturing, are in fact going to be the salvation of our economy.

The trifecta of nearly free data and storage, anywhere connectivity and "near-perfect computational design and production" will refocus a younger population on our superior educational infrastructure and technology leadership, the writers say.

America, they conclude, will be defined by high talent, not cheap labor. Their argument doesn't address the biggest labor crises or systemic educational problems facing much of the current generation, to whom we instead market dollar stores and dollar menus.

The degree to which big data, smart manufacturing and mobility can be tied to future economic strength is something to be hopeful for as efficiencies connect supply directly to demand and consumption histories.

But there is more than efficiency in the momentum the article envisions. For all the dollars that go to improve efficiency and products, many others go to marketing. The high pitch and directness of selling is going to be annoying and alarming to many people as their lives and histories become intimately understood.

Perhaps there is a generational tolerance evolving and, in a way, I guess it is less annoying than receiving catalogs and reams of advertising for products I'd never consider owning.

Right now the restaurant doesn't get my credit card until after I order, but I'm sure they are thinking about that. Once they figure it out, they will know a few more things about me ahead of time, and that I prefer my salad dressing low calorie and on the side.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.