Space Invaders block-prints!

“Pornhounds are friendlier,” and other data-mining trivia

There’s a story in a recent issue of Time about data mining. Apart from the usual big-brotheresque material, a couple of points struck me as really kooky, including:

A major hotel chain discovered that guests who opted for X-rated flicks spent more money and were less likely to make demands on the hotel staff, according to privacy consultant Larry Ponemon. These low-maintenance customers were rewarded with special frequent-traveler promotions. Victoria’s Secret stopped uniformly stocking its stores once MicroStrategy showed that the chain sold 20 times as many size-32 bras in New York City as in other cities …

A loan company using predictive-analysis software from Sightward, based in Bellevue, Wash., discovered that the No. 1 indicator of whether Web applicants will go through with a loan rather than merely check current quotes was whether they voluntarily identified their gender on the website.

What interests me about data-mining is that it throws all the old scientific warnings out the window. Scientists caution us that merely finding a link between two things doesn’t mean they have any logical connection. Correlation, they insist, is not causation.

In contrast, data mining is all about finding zillions and zillions of new correlations, in a desperate bid to cash in on them. Screw the scientific method; it’s like a sort of conspiracy theory on a mass scale — finding as many loopy threads as possible to knit together the chaos of the world. Except of course, many of those loopy threads actually do turn out to be useful. For whatever reason, knowing someone’s gender — and knowing that the person is willing to reveal it to you — means they really want a loan. Who knew?

The point is: Correlation may not be causation, but who cares? If you’re scientist, you want to prove X causes Y, because you’re trying to figure out the laws of nature. Marketers, on the other hand, have no such standard of proof. They find out that people who rent porn are friendly customers. Who cares why? It’s still useful info. Subrational processes are more useful than we think they are — and our machines are proving it.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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