The Algorithm of Crowds
By Philippe Gastonne - July 30, 2015

In a patent application filed today, Apple proposes a new e-commerce system that uses a mobile phone to deliver targeted ads to users based on what they can actually afford…

Broken down simply, the system sits on your phone, tracks the status of your credit or debit cards, sees what the balance on them is, and then targets ads at you based on what you can actually afford. This is a genuinely innovative marketing idea, as ads today are currently targeted at you based on what advertisers would like you to buy — not what you're actually able to buy. – Business Insider, July 16, 2015

Modern technology makes life easier, but it can also change our perception in potentially dangerous ways.

For instance, the Internet lets us see news and political commentary from many different perspectives. Intuitively, this might seem positive. We can easily examine various viewpoints and make informed decisions.

What really happens, though, is that people read only news sources that tell them what they want to hear. This reinforces the positions they already hold and makes them less likely to change.

Apple's newest patent filing could eventually bring a similar dynamic to our economic lives. Imagine how shopping will work when the only choices you see are those a computer algorithm believes you can afford. It would be a radically different experience.

Today any of us can visit a high-end mall and see all kinds of goods we can't afford. Are we wasting our time? Not necessarily. We get to see the benefits of wealth and may be inspired to increase our income. We might also learn those benefits are less than we imagined and decide to simplify our lives.

Our presence creates a dilemma for the salespeople in those stores. They know many "shoppers" are really just daydreaming, but they don't know whom. They can't assume from our appearance that we are wealthy or not wealthy.

Imagine a system that pings the store staff via wearable devices when a "real" potential customer walks in the door. The storeowner, seeing this as a way to make staff more productive, would leap at the chance.

In a world like this, society could easily stratify into different classes. We might have routine contact only with people the algorithms decide we should know.

Far from breaking down walls and bringing people together, technology may force us apart. The cultural and political consequences will be unpredictable – but probably not good.

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