Karl, Uber and sweaty hands

I’d been browsing online for a high pressure hose system for days. A Christmas gift for a cleanaholic in the family…

I’d been through to a couple of retailers which offered online sales, and asked for prices on the Karcher K140. It was going to be €199 for the basic machine and I really wanted the extension for upstairs windows. I began to notice ads appearing in my Facebook page for Karchers, and for Nilfisk options, but the prices all tended to be higher than I’d first seen on Amazon. No surprises there. I’ve been getting targeted advertising based on my browsing history for a while.

Then I started getting ads for the Karcher K180, which said that I’d need the bigger machine for my bigger property, and that most of my neighbours in Kinsale had the bigger machine. Amazon wanted €250 for the K180, and I didn’t want to pay that much, but as I spent more time looking at the prices for this bigger machine, I stopped getting ads for the K140, and all the main online retailers’ prices on the K180 seemed to go up. Christmas delivery dates were running out and I was getting desperate. Prices kept rising…

Personalised pricing, or price discrimination has begun. We’re getting allocated a price based on our address and demography, and that price is going up or down based on our ability to walk away, or our impatience to buy. Mac users get given higher prices than PC users, and depending on their browsing history, they will be deemed more or less desperate to buy. Outrageous! But hang on, last time I was in Marrakech, in the Souk, I was no more than amused when I refused to buy a rug and walked away, that the shop keeper followed me and offered me a lower price, but when I just had to have that beautiful chess set which had been carved by the little boy with no arms, using his bare feet, the price was non-negotiable.

I’ve heard that soon the technology will sense our emotional state and prices will be adjusted accordingly. The more impatiently you browse, the more the price goes up. Time to start playing online poker, I think.

“Balderdash”, I hear you cry. Surely the price is the price? Surely we’re not becoming part of an Orwellian nightmare where commerce robs from the rich and gives to the poor? Or is it a Marxist utopian dream we’re having?

In Finland, speeding ticket prices are linked to income. Time for a more integrated and open system where “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is applied electronically to equalise social injustice – the fair distribution of wealth. So if I want to buy the Karcher K180, because I live in a fuck-off house, but Joe, who lives in the council estate down the road, in a small terraced house, also wants the K180, because he wants one over on his neighbours, who should pay more for the same machine? Does his mobile phone report on his motives and the fact that his is a ‘luxury’ purchase, while my needs dictate the bigger machine and in my case it is a necessity? Can the algorithms weigh wealth against greed? Can they choose who deserves what? Not yet. But remember, the number one objective of ALL commercial organisations is to maximise return on investment for shareholders.

Your mobile phone has sweat detection sensors, which measure galvanic skin responses to stress or excitement, it can pick up your heartbeat, has motion detectors which can probably tell how often you go to the toilet. As you move around a shop, the phone identifies where you stop, and for how long. The wifi connected packaging on the merchandise (which is already built into high value items) in front of you also reports when it is moved, picked up and examined, and if you keep fiddling with the new sandwich toaster on special offer, and it is something which is also for sale in another shop within the mall, why not offer a ‘special price’ just for you, using a personalised digital display? The advertising boxes which show digital ads in the mall already change depending on the time of day and whether it’s about time you fancied a pizza. In fact, the mobile phone can even detect stomach noises if you’re hungry, apparently, and matching them to your normal feeding patterns and shopping habits would allow the ad to be that perfect pizza you drool over in the takeaway. Why wouldn’t the ads be personalised to suit your own preferences as you pass the ad box? Only that there are some ‘legislative hurdles’ about data privacy to get over, apparently. Uber’s algorithms can tell how low the battery is on your phone, and therefore how desperate you might be to book that cab before your phone dies. They have evidence that people will pay a higher price for the cab in such circumstances…

So do we just wake up and smell the brand of coffee we like? Can we learn to play poker against an algorithm? I think not. So, first rule is leave your mobile phone at home in a lead-lined box when you go shopping, and every so often, buy something you don’t want, or perhaps do someone else’s shopping.

 

Thanks to Arwa Mahdawi in The Guardian for poking my unending fascination…

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