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Posts from July 2008

Brave New World

In 1987, to commemorate its 50th anniversary, The Public Opinion Quarterly asked 16 well-known scholars and survey practitioners to offer their visions of the future of public opinion research. In his response, Harold Mendelsohn described how ". . . the eventual 'computerizing' of the American home undoubtedly will contribute significantly to the speed, accuracy, and economy with which data will be gathered, analyzed, and readied for dissemination." James Beniger wrote that "a host of new technologies will . . . make possible the real-time mass monitoring of individual behavior . . . Survey research will increasingly give way to more direct measures of behavior made possible by new computer-based technologies." In a particularly chilling vision, and perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Robert Worcester described how ". . . market researchers are close to their tactical ideal, the comprehensively wired micro model of segmented household 'norms' which can be conceptualized, pressurized, test marketed to, weighted (up and down), copy tested, product tested, studied, and, yes, manipulated by cables, satellites, and sensors (worn in rings, necklaces, earrings, or even—shades of George Orwell—implanted!)."

In the interest of full disclosure I should note that the preceding paragraph is copped from a chapter I wrote for a book back in 1998. I was reminded of it when I saw a report on a study that tracked people's movement using their cell phones. And it did so without their knowledge. Putting aside for the moment the likelihood that this is illegal in the US, the possibilities for research and for marketing are immense. Equally immense are the implications for privacy. More and more this is the tension that we as researchers and society at large are going to have to deal with. This is a huge challenge to our industry and frankly, it's hard to be optimistic about how it is likely to turn out.