Certain phrases originally having innocuous meanings sometimes take on bad connotations. Many times it is not entirely clear how or why this happens, but you use these phrases at your own peril. Here are some recent examples you might run across:
Data Mining is the process of extracting and discovering patterns in “Big Data”. Recently, while taking a continuing education course I was a little astonished to hear the instructor tell us not to use the phrase “data mining”. It has picked up some nasty connotations. He advised using such terms such as data analytics and prescriptive analytics instead. Last week I came across an article on Fox News with the headline “Utah parents heated after discovering DOJ ‘mining’ racial data, names of their children: ‘absolute overreach’. It seems data mining has become synonymous with invasion of privacy, marketing manipulation, security risks and a plethora of other nasty activities.
Neuromarketing is the measurement of neurological and physiological reactions to determine customer motivations. It developed out of neuroscience and neuroeconomics and is now tinged with the stain of manipulation. Many people feel that marketing itself is a form of manipulation, but now tailoring marketing campaigns to produce dopamine and provoke involuntary reactions to stimuli seems to be an even worse form of manipulation to many.
Nudging was described by Richard Thaler, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2017, and Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor who is brilliant in his own right, in their 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The book was amazingly well written and accessible by almost anyone, but the premise was controversial. Thaler and Sunstein believed in “liberal paternalism” where people could be guided into “right” decisions through a process of nudging people in the direction of the “correct” answers. Examples in the book include how this process would work in picking retirement savings and health insurance plans. Nudging has many advocates, but it has many detractors too. Some critics have called this theory yet another type of manipulation by the government.
What do these all have in common? It seems to me the issue with each of these is a perceived restriction on freedom and some form of perceived manipulation. I say perceived in both cases because I personally believe the jury is still out on whether this is the case or not. Thaler and Sunstein state the careful application of nudge theory is not really manipulation but rather a simple use of techniques and/or technology to lead people to the right decision about critical life decisions. Yet people feel uneasy about giving up their right to be, well….wrong. People obviously do not want to be manipulated, nor do they want to surrender their privacy. In fact, people have now become less trusting and are becoming leery of anything that could even potentially be used to violate their own personal space. They fear data mining, neuromarketing and nudging (whether by the government or by big corporations) could be the beginning of this path. Only time will tell, but for now, I would suggest staying away from using these terms. You may only be looking for trouble if you do.