Algorithmic autonomy

When algorithms know more about us than we do ourselves, marketing roles will start to come under threat, writes Nicola Kemp in the latest of our Forward 50 trends series.

Technology drives the neurosis of our age: as it becomes more pervasive and intelligent, society becomes more concerned with how to navigate its moral and social effects. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of the algorithms shaping the world.

Algorithms take many forms and are having a big impact on the marketing and media landscape. Movie and TV series-streaming site Netflix created House of Cards, a stand-out drama series that drew praise internationally, after establishing the number of users who enjoy Kevin Spacey films, also like the work of director David Fincher and have a fondness for political dramas. 

Nonetheless, this kind of creativity-by-numbers gives only a hint of the full extent of what algorithms can do. Barack Obama’s US Presidential campaign employed algorithms to achieve, arguably, the most successful political micro-targeting in history, while Facebook and Google have embraced algorithms to build detailed pictures of their users to better target ads.

Christopher Steiner, author of Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World, believes they are the defining force of our age. He writes: "We are at a giant fork in the arc of humanity and the question is just how much will we allow algorithms to take over?"

For marketers, this question has a particular saliency as more marketing technology companies pitch themselves, to the chief financial officer at least, as a simple way to reduce headcount. Already, in several digitally focused brands, the role of the brand manager has, in effect, been replaced by an algorithm.

The part algorithms play in marketing will only increase, but how much autonomy marketers are willing to sacrifice hangs in the balance. While no one wants to believe that an algorithm could better fulfil their role, we may not be the best judges of this. When algorithms that mine our data know more about us than we do ourselves, it seems certain that more marketing roles and functions will come under threat from them.


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