American psychologist B. F. Skinner considered free will an illusion and that all human behaviour is based simply on previous experiences — hence his experiments with instrumental conditioning, where behaviour is tailored using rewards or punishment. Skinner was heavily criticised for his experiments, but as we enter the era of big data, marketers are using the exact same approach to control the behaviour of their consumers.
One of the reasons America is hooked on junk foods is that we are gnomically designed to crave sweet, salty, and fatty tastes (as Michael Moss has documented and reported on in his recent Salt, Sugar, Fat). Many obese people have those cravings. If a fast-food provider using big data can discover by analyzing your Internet behavior that you have been looking for ways to lose weight, they have a pretty good idea that you might be one of those cravers and a candidate for a fast food virtual Skinner box.
At that point, the marketing imperative becomes pretty simple. When your iPhone tells McDonald's or Burger King you are near a franchise, they send you a text message announcing 20 percent off on a Big Mac, or a Whopper and fries -- an unpredictable reward -- in hopes that you will react just like the rats in Skinner's boxes.
On The Atlantic, this article on how smartphones have destroyed the post-millenial generation is also an interesting read.
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