To What Extent Are We Ethically Responsible for Our Tech Breakthroughs?

You're Selling the Benefits, but You Should Calculate the Risks

By Published on .

Biotech has given us the ability to create designer babies. What does that portend? Mammals have been cloned. What about humans? And what about xenotransplantation, wherein a pig's liver, for example, is used to save the life of a child? Where, catastrophically, might these miraculous technologies lead?

These are the Gordian knots facing bioethicists. You face them, too.

The vast collection and trading of online data have credited information-ethics issues almost directly parallel to biological ones. Most often they concern personal privacy and security, but consider this question: what if data gives third parties a window into our very personalities, our mentalities, or essential selves?

Let's discuss MindTime, a 14-year-old San Francisco psychological research firm now aggressively pursuing marketing applications for its personality-profile mapping service. In the words of its website, "MindTime represents a quantum leap in understanding and predicting human behavior -- we know how people think."

Much like traditional demographic segmentation or VALS categories of shared values and lifestyles, MindTime uses a basic nine-point questionnaire to assess three basic personality archetypes, then slices and dices them to 64 subarchetypes (with the possibility, if you weren't dissuaded by the law of diminishing returns, to go 12 million deep).

"Psychographic and behavioral data are very good at telling you who your customers are, what they are consuming, where they are concentrated in the marketplace and when they take action," says Jason Burnham, MindTime exec VP-business development. "But they don't tell you why consumers behave the way that they do, they don't tell you how people are perceiving you're marketing messages and they don't tell what's actually motivating consumers into action."

For decades, the Meyers-Briggs test has attempted to divine personality, but has long been criticized for dubious accuracy and efficacy in predicting, for example, job performance. MindTime claims to have revolutionized the field by identifying cognition in terms of three basic time perspectives.

"Future thinking is all about possibility," Burnham says. "It's the province of creativity, entrepreneurship, art, music, hope in a future that 's yet to occur."

"Past thinkers are all about validation. They are deep thinkers and require a lot of evaluation. They are very cautious in how they approach the world. They want to see the proof. And when they do approach a decision, they really analyze things pretty deeply.

"Present thinking people are very practical -- your managers, your strategists your architects. They like to control things, they're very big on efficiency and utility. They're very organized, very structured, but they tend to migrate toward trends, what the masses are migrating towards."

We are all of us, he says, defined -- like our fingerprints, or our genes -- by our unique combinations of these outlooks. That particular map is somehow divined by our answers to nine innocuous-sounding propositions. For example: "1. I am known for generating ideas" and "6. People think I am best at planning and organization."

Assuming that the company's claims are true, the opportunity for marketers is obvious. As Burnham puts it, "It automatically informs them on how to be messaging people with different thinking styles, the types of products and/or brand attributes that would resonate the strongest, the level of frequency of communication, the level of information and the types of information and the types of content someone would need to make an informed purchase decision."

Merely creating dynamic content for different mindprints would be the most obvious tactic, but then imagine the possibilities of overlaying these individual profiles with behavioral tracking or the Facebook API and suddenly a marketer knows exactly which button to push.

The hitch is that actual human beings have to voluntarily fill out the questionnaire, but that 's a tragically low hurdle. We as a culture are simultaneously so self-absorbed and so exhibitionistic that the "fun" of seeing our own mindprints would be irresistible. Burnham calls that just part of the value exchange.

"As an individual, don't you wish people would just understand you better?" he poses, as if there were no difference between my wife having better insight into my personality and Procter & Gamble having that insight. Short answer: No, Jason, I'm not much interested in bartering my inner self for the sort of grins I might get from today's horoscope.

His short reply: "Where's the threat?

"Unless it got in the hands of somebody who knew somebody's thinking style in the middle of hypnotizing them, " he says, (quite wittily, I grant you), "I'm at a loss."

MindTime itself anonymizes the results to the extent that they are linked only to email addresses, he assures me, and the company by policy does not share those with clients.

However, Burnham acknowledges that there is nothing to stop a given client from collecting a statistically significant number of MindTime personality maps and correlating them with other data -- behavioral tracking, let's say -- and eventually being able to impute a given user's mindprint based solely on tracking data, without his or her knowledge or acquiescence. No questionnaire. No fun. No value exchange.

And therein the info-ethics conundrum: When unleashing a data technology onto the internet -- like a genetically-engineered species into the ecosystem -- is it enough to imagine only the proximate benefits? Or does it behoove us all to imagine unintended, but reasonably predictable, consequences?

Don't bother answering. This is no MindTime questionnaire; it's a rhetorical question. Burnham is correctly bullish about mentality mapping's endless possibilities for education, hiring, even matchmaking. But as a society, we must also calculate the risk to our most personal possessions: our selves themselves. And we must take care about what forces we unleash.

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
In this article: