Will Apps Really Make Buying Decisions For Us?


J.Walker Smith CEO of the The Futures Co. (Part of Kantar/WPP) posted a thought provoking article about Programmatic Consumption on the AMA blog recently.

It is claimed that digital apps will be used by customers to make buying decisions on their behalf and that a new era of so called ‘on demand’ purchasing is nigh. When has a purchase ever been ‘off demand’? ‘Oh I’ll buy this because I don’t want it’!

The era of programmatic consumption is where me and you aren’t involved in the things we purchase and we leave it up to apps to talk to other apps to decide what we want and place the order.

Forgive me if I think this is technological determinism going a little bit too far.

I get that apps can filter customer choices placed before us but actually deciding the relevance of the purchase seems utterly implausible. This denies the social context in which purchases are made and air brushes the person who has the wallet out of the picture. It shows a lack of understanding of what relevance making is and how it works.

Sure relevance is something that data miners pay attention too. See the work of Sarajevic (2007) Relevance: A Review of the Literature and a Framework for Thinking on the Notion in Information Science. Part II: Nature and Manifestations of Relevance*. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58. Nevertheless as Saracevic agrees relevance making remains a human faculty. See Schiller 1912:

‘Relevance is the product not an attempt to include everything, but of an effort to get rid of the rubbish, to select the humanly valuable part, and to exclude, reject and ignore the rest… The ‘relevant,’ therefore, stands out of a chaotic whole as a selected extract’.

Or as sociologist Schutz says:

‘The question of why these facts and precisely these are selected by thought from the totality of lived experience and regarded as relevant’ Schutz (1967:24)

Not to mention the extensive work on relevance by Grice and Sperber and Wilson on relevance and meaning making too.

The ultimate decision on the relevance of the offer will always be made by a human being even if technology has been used to target the selection. Even when the algorithm proposes something as ‘relevant’ we still have to decide the relevance of that. To do that we test the relevance in terms of our matter at hand at that very moment (and the benefit and value). We decide the meaning.

I am always a tad sceptical of ‘brave new world’ marketing perspectives especially when a shiny new ideas like ‘programmatic consumption’ are floated. The cynic in me says that this is just an old fashioned scare tactic along the lines of “you’ve not heard of prog-consumption? Really? You need to get clued up because it’s the future, throw away the old models and explanations of consumption they won’t work any more….what you need is….’ As they say fear sells.

I wonder if an app will be created that will decide if ‘programmatic consumption’ is relevant to your business. Imagine lying on a beach with a cocktail and letting it run your life for you!

Makes you wonder why you would even publish an article about it. Just get your app to talk to my app.

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