Niche marketing is all the rage. People in the biz gleefully talk of “markets of one” and with newly available data tracking and mining capabilities, it is rapidly becoming a reality. The goal of the seller is to know so much about you that they can specifically target offers and/or package goods and services in a way that uniquely appeals to you – and presumably that means you can’t resist buying.

There’s lots of well published concern about the data mining aspects of this. It’s not bad enough that the NSA is reading your email, but Google knows you searched on “Latex Chew Toys” and your Amazon profile says you own no pets. Further, the credit card records of your Facebook friends show they don’t buy pet food. Further, your medical history shows a prescription for nicotine patches, so clearly you’re having a little trouble with the nervous anxiety associated with quitting cigarettes. Would you like to enroll in our new 12-Step Program for Tobacco Addiction? And by the way, your insurance company just called and canceled your mental health coverage as your chance of a breakdown just crossed their risk threshold.

Clearly there are upsides and downsides to the world knowing too much about you. And the fear here is largely generational. Us old folks tend to be very uncomfortable with Big Brother, but younger people seem not to bat an eye at revealing most anything to anyone. If you don’t believe me, spend some time surfing MySpace. Trust me, it’s more than you ever wanted to know. But only if you’re not in Marketing.

So that’s the dark side of niche marketing. Right? No, I don’t think so. There’s a darker side, that so far seems to get very little coverage. Maybe because it’s a little harder to understand, but I think its disruptive potential for society dwarfs the privacy concerns.

To grasp the risk here, you have to start by understanding the role social vectors play in our lives and in our culture. People in general, whether you like to admit it or not, have a sheep-like quality to them. They have a tendency to be herded into groups, and then tend to behave with a certain group mentality. Further, let’s recognize that while the majority of people may make a conscious choice to join a particular group, they don’t make too many conscious choices about the goodness or truth of the group-think once they are there. The beliefs, attitudes, rituals, behaviors, and philosophies of the group are just accepted as part of being a member. In for a penny, in for a pound. This tends to be true whether the group is the Rotary, Methodist church, Democratic party, or the Ku Klux Klan. And no, I’m not equating the Rotary to the KKK. I’m making no judgments on the groups, only that they exist and they exert behavioral mores on their members.

Next, we have to look at group identity. It is very natural for any group to delineate between members and non-members and treat them differently. This is true whether you are a Mason with a secret handshake or a book club member who knows why Alice isn’t welcome there any more. We tend to identify more strongly with others in our group than those outside it.

Now, let us view each of these groups as a vector that is driving our attitude and behavior in a certain direction. To extend the metaphor a bit, think of yourself as being moved along in the flow of a social vector. Those within your flow are moving with you and are easy to maintain a relationship with. When you cross other vectors, those people seem to be impeding you, they are in your way, or minimally, they are just passing by.

So, it’s time for some historical perspective. Going back thousands of years or more, people tended to have but a single social vector. It may have been their village or their family, but it was the group to which they belonged, and the group on which their survival depended. As larger political structures arose, they tended to aggregate social vectors. In essence, multiple villages now behaved as one, or the kingdom was your extended family. Organized religion, independent of the government, was the first large scale, non-parallel vector to arise. In western society, this was the Catholic church, led by the Pope. Lots of power struggles ensued over the centuries (ask the Templars), but ultimately the fight was about who should get to control the people. Which vector should they follow?

But in the end, it was the people who decided that these different social vectors were not mutually exclusive. It was okay to be French and Catholic. And a cool thing happened. Catholics in France found out they shared something with Catholics in Italy. French Protestants and French Catholics found common ground in their national pride.

Fast forward a few centuries and we find that socially tolerant societies are universally defined by people bearing a multitude of social vectors where no one vector dominates their lives. Tolerance is predicated on finding a way to move someone from the outside to the inside. Think of all the labels which might rightly be applied to you. They might represent your religion, political party, school, sport team, employer, industry, neighborhood, family, hobby, etc. There is a direct correlation between your degree of social tolerance and the diversity of vectors which describe you. Conversely, if you are strongly defined by just a single vector, then you will tend to be intolerant of those in other vectors as it becomes increasingly difficult to relate to them. As an example, look at the Shiite/Sunni situation in Iraq. These are people whose dominant defining vector is their religious sect. And as a result, they do not tolerate the other sect. If culturally they were also experiencing vectors of being Iraqi, being shopkeepers, etc, then their cultural tolerance would increase.

If you’re still with me, you’re doubtless beginning to wonder what happened to the point about niche marketing. Have I gone completely off the rails here? Not yet, I’m getting back to it… honest.

Marketing is all about identifying and even helping people define and identify with social vectors. Most “Soccer Moms” didn’t identify with that vector until it was defined by marketing firms and later exploited by politicians. In the quest to define the ideal consumer, marketers are trying to slice those demographic social vectors with finer and finer granularity. the result has been a recent explosion of the number of vectors with which we identify. Great taste or less filling? Boxers or briefs? Paper or plastic? But to what end? Well, marketing’s end goal is being able to sell product, and this strategy may well succeed in that regard. However, I think that socially and politically, this is a harbinger of epic evolution and maybe revolution.

Consider that if my “motion” is influenced by a handful of moderate force vectors, chances are I will find some coherent path forward. It’s highly unlikely those few forces will directly cancel each other out. Some momentum will result. Further, others will likely be traveling in my same general direction, even if not on my exact same path. Together, we build collective force in some direction. In other words, progress.

Now consider that my “motion” is influenced instead by hundreds of tiny vectors. Chances are that I’m more likely to remain still or maybe laze around on an uncertain trajectory. Add in all the others experiencing this same cacophony of forces, and the result is more Brownian motion than progress.

If you relate to everyone, and everything seems like a good idea. How do you decide what to do? Or more importantly, how do you decide what not to do? After all, if I have the option of doing everything (going in all directions at once), then the choice is easy. But the world doesn’t work that way. Resources are finite. Ultimately some things will happen at the expense of others. For progress to occur, some direction must be chosen.

I fear we are already experiencing this deadlock today. The largest liability of the Democratic party is its inability to find a coherent direction. There are so many competing vectors that the result is stagnation. They are currently succeeding only because the Republicans have imploded. Congress is at similar loggerheads. They have become immobile as a result of the multitude of forces they experience. These examples are merely organizational extensions of us as a people. We are stagnating. We are reaching a point where we are tolerant of anything, and we can make progress on nothing because no one thing seems important enough to accomplish if it means overlooking something else. The inability to choose is causing us rot in place.

Further, from a cultural perspective, we are losing our identity as a people. This deterioration of our national social vector is brought on because a vector must be able to define not only what it is to belong, but what it isn’t. Increasingly, we don’t know who we aren’t. As a result, our national vector is losing focus and coherence.

Is it fair to blame all this on marketing run amok? No, if they didn’t do it, someone would for a different purpose. Technology has eroded logistical barriers for binding most any group together such that vectors can form now that never would have before. People who are rabid Jar Jar Binks fans, but only the character before he entered government, can now meet and interact. Fifty years ago, you would have never even known another soul with your esoteric interest existed. Moreover, technology also enables the collection and analysis of data about all these groups and interests. It’s still true that information is power, there’s just more of it to go around now.

So technology is to blame? I can’t go there. That’s like blaming the hammer for your bruised thumb. The solution isn’t to outlaw hammers, it’s to learn to be a little more careful when using one. After all, hammers do lots of useful things too. And as far as technology goes, it’s way too late to put that genie back in the bottle.

So are we doomed? Probably not. But in as much as a medieval monarch could not conceive of a functional democracy, I think we have not yet conceived of our next evolutionary stage of government. But I do think that we are now beginning the journey to that next stage. It’s clear to me that representative democracies will not function in a world with so many social vectors. It’s also clear that there is no way to unoppressively legislate our way back to where we were. I’m certainly not arrogant enough to presuppose I know what’s next though. Just that we are on the precipice of significant change.

Buckle up…

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