guineapigLet’s get this straight…..the Guinea Pig Economy has already begun and if you own a mobile device, it is likely that you are participating in it, whether you know it or not.   Let’s get one other thing straight, we aren’t talking about the cute little South American rodent-like squeaky animals.  We are talking about an emerging industry in which consumers will be tracked, measured and prodded into action; it is advertising on steriods.   Social networking and digital advertising are colliding  — thanks to the proliferation of connected devices such as smartphones, wearables, thermostats and  autos–-  with powerful and integrated software behavioral science and advertising to influence human behavior.  It is a perfect storm of data, technology and advertising.   The result:  data is being used not only to measure but to determine consumer outcomes.   This emerging field was called Captology, short for Computers as Persuasive Technologies, (named by Stanford computer scientist B.J. Fogg in 1996) but now it is being called  “the Guinea Pig Economy” in a February 2015 Forbes Magazine article.

The Guinea Pig Economy can be traced to the 1990s when a Sun Micro-systems researcher seized on the potential of early Internet browsers as testing platforms. Rather than just show everyone the same thing, he promoted hte idea of showing smaller groups of visitors different interfaces, in order to judge which proved more effective. A/B testing was born. Google seized the A/B testing concept and showed how millions of users versions of a results page with 10, 20 or 30 links. It turned out the lowest number led to faster page loads, and shaving those milliseconds kept people coming back to the service.  Today,  according to Forbes Magazine, Google’s engineering and data science teams are reportredly running thousands of A/B tests at any one time to find ways to improve our services in myriad ways, from assessing what color and interfaces people prefer, to using our infrastructure more efficiently.

It’s been used in politics as well — with great effect.  When Barack Obama geared up his 2008 presidential campaign, he deployed Google-style A/B testing on fundraiser e-mails and websites spurred a 40% jump in supporter sign-ups. The experiment presented 24 variations of a sign-up “splash” page generated some $60 million in additional donations by narrowing choices down to the most effective one.  The company that created the Obama testing campaign, Optimizely, now  boasts more than 8,000 clients, including Disney, Microsoft and Sony, and its operations fill a cavernous warehouse in downtown San Francisco.

A/B testing is making its way into most all consumer transactions including entertainment, food, health care, energy, non-profit maangement, and social media.   If it is digital, it is testable.  This raises some very tricky ethical questions as this data reveals and influences what we eat and what we watch, our pace and pulse, and the temperatures in our bodies and homes are all accessible.  Most consumers have no idea that they are part of this massive behavioral experiment, but when they find out, it makes them uncomfortable.  For example, when Facebook revealed that in 2012 it had run a series of tests on its newsfeed, it was accused of being creepy.  The so-called emotional contagion experiment manipulated the wording of around 700,000 users’ status updates to make them appear slightly sadder or happier than they were. The troubling part was that  Facebook had made a lot of people seem a little sadder; it was its initial indifference to the experiment and the likelihood this was the tip of a large iceberg we knew very little about.  Similarly, when the OKCupid dating site admitted to manipulating test results in order to influence its customers, consumers got very uncomfortable.  What was most disturbing is that OKCupid was not only proud of its testing but stated that “everyone does it“.    The company’s president wrote in a blog post: “If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time.”   He was right — untold hundreds (if not thousands) of large companies are engaged in guinea pig experiments as we speak.

More disturbing is that there is no government oversight or any clear set of industry-consensus guidelines about how this massive data is to be used.   Internet users have been unwittingly corraled into the Wild Wild West of social engineering.   Scholarly articles written by very thoughtful observers warn of the potential for market manipulation.   A professor at the University of Washington School of Law stated recently that we are observing a coming “sea change in the way companies use data to persuade” creates an ever-increasing opportunity to really exploit users.  The amount of data available to advertising has increased exponentially as a result of Big Data development.   The potential for data misuse has similarly increased exponentially.   One likely outcome:  Addiction by Design.   Anthropologist Natasha Dow Schull has studied how casinos and machine gambling have been using data and social engineering to pull players into a “trancelike state” to promote gambling.   She details how the gambling industry has been using strategic calculations behind game algorithms and machine ergonomics, casino architecture and “ambience management,” player tracking and cash access systems–all designed to get consumers to gamble….and lose….more.  The gambling industry isn’t alone in using data to manipulate outcomes.  It is everpresent.  You just don’t know it……..yet.