Statistics are the cornerstone of every modern Western society. Governments use them to guage public opinion, and more increasingly private enterprises rely on statistics to narrow the focus on their target audiences. Contemporary business procedures almost universally dictate that you need to understand your target audience in order to provide services and products that will best serve the customer. Unfortunately, as with most dogmas, when these principles are applied without reservation the original purpose is lost and a large part of society becomes marginalised.
Polls, surverys and focus groups can all generate a wealth of information, however there is one piece of information that is typically the focus: what does the majority want. Of course there is nothing wrong with responding to the majority on individual issues, however when the same methodology is applied to a group of issues collectively, a poll becomes a profiling excercise, whereby the implementors use statistics to predict the overall feeling of a populace on a number of issues. The problem with profiling however, is that it doesn’t necessarily represent any form of reality.
The best we can realistically hope for with this type of social profiling is that the majority will have some of their opinions on individual issues addressed, but as a whole you would expect noone to be represented in the entirety of their views. To achieve even this level of representation for the majority, the issues being addressed collectively must be related, in that unrelated issues can generate wildy different opinions amongst individuals, and any attempt to consolidate such opinions into a collective majority view would be futile. The danger then, is that companies, governments, etc. may not fully understand how issues relate to each other, and may build their campaign on a foundation of poorly implemented statistics.
Australian politics is at a crossroads right now, with no party being able to capture the favour of the majority. As political parties rely so much on polling the electorate, it would suggest that in Australia the number crunchers have failed to generate meaninful statistical data regarding the issues that resonate most strongly with the public. Or maybe the parties have just lost their faith in statistics. Whatever the reason, it is clear that noone really understood what the electorate wanted.
Perhaps more of a concern is how companies, both large and small, seem to give greater importance to servicing existing markets than allowing new markets to form around their products and services. This is the act of entrepeneurs without an idea – leaders without vision. The only thing companies seem clear on is that they want huge profits, and however they achieve that goal isn’t really all that important. So they rely on statistics and social profiling, trying to determine what people want and are willing to pay for. For these companies the unfortunate truth is that without even a moral compass to guide you, generating reliable and useful statistics is very difficult. Unfortunately for the rest of us, these companies also have greater liberties than government when it comes to smoke and mirrors magic tricks (i.e. advertising), often leaving us deceived by the fine print. And as for companies like Woolworths, Kmart, Costco, what do they stand for? Lower prices, every day? That’s not a moral position, it’s a slogan. But we all know that the consumer majority will happily choose lower prices over morality, but what we don’t see is that these choices are slowly eroding our own individuality.
As more companies focus on serving the consumer majority, the diversity of products and services is sacrificed. The resulting homogoneity in turn forces the consumer to change their behaviour, and start buying products that everyone else buys. Start doing things the way everyone else does. Stop thinking for yourself and fall into line. Hang on, wasn’t it supposed to be companies that respond to consumer demand for products and services? How is it then that companies can change consumer behaviour? Has the moulder become the moulded?
So the next time you deal with a profit-focused enterprise, consider the alternatives, even if they are more expensive. Nothing less than your own individuality is at stake.