Personalisation is Asymmetric Psychological Warfare


Another privacy nightmare. An airline wants its cabin crew to know your birthday and favourite drinks order, to better personalise its service to you.

My first instinct is to recoil in horror. It sounds like every dystopian sci-fi epic.

But why do I feel this way? Partly it is the lack of genuine personality behind the interaction. It is the Uncanny Valley of sincerity. When Facebook wishes you happy birthday, it is a purely mechanical response - not an outpouring of genuine feeling.

There's also the issue of why they do this. At a base level, it is money. They want you to feel a positive association with their "brand" so that you will spend money with them.

They are hijacking your emotions. Nothing new here - the half-naked woman on a billboard trying to get you to buy car insurance, the catchy pop-song designed to make you pick one brand of cola over another, the ruggedly handsome man telling you how white your shirts can be...

But in the airline example, there is a sinister asymmetry. They know everything about you - and you know nothing about them.

Let's correct that.

Imagine as you get on the plane you smile at the pilot, glance at your phone, and say "Hope this landing is smoother than your last few, Sandra! Still, you should be fine as you only had two gin-and-tonics last night."

As the cabin crew serves you a drink "Dave! Can I get more peanuts? I know you're on your final warning from HR - and I'd hate for someone to put in another complaint."

Would paranoid flyers only only get on flights if they knew that the pilot was under 55 years old? Would they refuse to fly if the pilot had recently gone through a divorce and lost custody of their kids?

Would people use social engineering to get an upgrade ("happy birthday flight crew! I baked you your favourite pecan pie!")

All of these feel distasteful to me - but it is the logical conclusion. If you want to artificially personalise our markets, we should be able to turn the tables on you.

6 thoughts on “Personalisation is Asymmetric Psychological Warfare

  1. The crew isn't behind this any more than you are. Now if we could directly pester the board of directors I'd be all for it.

    1. The crew might not be “behind this”, but they view their bosses as legitimate authorities, allow themselves to lapse into the agentic state, and follow orders without any consideration of the consequences. They are not wholly to blame, but they should organize and fight back.

      1. At the very least, they shouldn’t be upset when the tables are turned on them. They might be doing their job right but that’s not an excuse not to understand the problem

        1. It surely will create internal pressure in the company where communication is more efficient and involved parties don’t really leave.

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