If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

When is a Cookie not a Biscuit?

In her charming 1985 book for children “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie”, authoress Laura Numeroff provides a look into what happens when kindness (of a little boy) and neediness (of a mouse) meet. One can see the story as an analogy to real life economic situations, for example; or simply enjoy the story at a simplistic level, much as one would tell it to a child.

In a previous article, https://www.jmbdavis.com/desk-jmb-ip-laws-safety-every-counterfeit-silver-lining/, I opined that the use of branding and trademarks leads to manufacturers to self-regulate to the benefit and safety of their customers. In brief, through the double edged sword of their need for market recognition, which at the same time causes them to be a known and recognizable target for discontent if their products or services are seen to be inferior, they take more responsibility for their products and services. Self-interest can be a marvelous tool…

The present article goes beyond the visible purchase of goods and services, and from the largely simplistic world of registered intellectual property, to the world of big data. It dips uncomfortably below the surface and descends to murky depths which should have everyone shifting uncomfortably in their seats as they hear the story.

In the above children’s book, the mouse has a series of needs, all of which are met by the little boy. Of course, the mouse never questions whether the cookie contains GMOs, whether the milk that he is then given contains hormones… well, you can see where this is going.

The symbiosis expressed in the story is a naïve, simplistic child’s view of the world, of the needs of the mouse being provided – no questions asked. In a slightly more sinister version of the same story, one could envisage that, if this is an ongoing sequence of events in which the mouse frequently comes asking for a cookie, the little boy will be able to predict the needs of the mouse, and, depending on what the mouse is given and how it responds, he may even induce the mouse to ask for more and different foods and treats. Of course, this only becomes sinister, if the boy has a self-interest in providing ever more and different products and services to the mouse…

In many ways, this is similar to today’s fast-moving world of commerce, and especially so-called loyalty programs. Such programs, implementing the known rule of thumb that it is far more cost-effective to invest in customer retention than to obtain new customers, study the habits of their customers so as to see what further needs (or repeat needs) they can satisfy. All of this is well and good, and when it is based on actual purchases of one’s customers, and their likes and dislikes voluntarily expressed to the supplier, such as to floor staff in a department store or to managers in a restaurant, seems to be perfectly legitimate.

Imagine then, the new opportunities to follow customers habits in our brave new online world, where more and more goods and services are searched and purchased online. If a customer from a known IP address searches, for example, a clothing website looking for the right shirt or pair of shoes, if they are using my database to search among my offerings and will possibly purchase from my online store so as to satisfy their need for a shirt, who’s to say that I shouldn’t benefit from all of the clicks and selections that they make, using, as said, resources from which they are benefitting?

But hold on a minute! Those same people also have publicly available pages, whether on Facebook or Instagram or just good old-fashioned blogs… so why not use that information too, which, as said, is publicly available, so as to see what they are posting about, commenting on, discussing? Maybe I can use that information too to market directly to them. Surely, if I can satisfy someone’s needs then they will appreciate personalized marketing based on information that they are not hiding, after all! Won’t they?

But then the world of big data (as explained to me recently by IP Lawyer Alex Mezulanik) enters the scene, and starts not only predicting whether I will purchase eggs and milk on Tuesdays, beans and ice cream on Thursdays or Wednesdays with my laundry detergent, but also my need to schedule an appointment with the optician next June, just before my annual camping holiday in The Bahamas… What’s the harm in that?

The harm can be those situations where this moves from predicting straightforward, apparently mundane choices, as harmless as the clothes that we choose to wear and thus express ourselves to the world, to interpolating or predicting aspects of my personal life which, by definition, are private. Assuming that it should not be subject to the scrutiny of others, this then becomes an extreme invasion of privacy, of stalking and unacceptable in any decent society.

Such an example is that of a well-documented case involving Target, who successfully predicted that a teenage customer was pregnant based on her shopping and sent maternity-targeted coupons to her home address.  This inadvertently led to a chain reaction which ultimately let the cat out of the bag before the daughter had even shared her news with her father.

But that’s not all. If the problem so far has been using public or otherwise volunteered data to make these predictions, along come super smart companies, knowing that many large corporations would love to lay their hands on the non-public, non-volunteered data, and use that for commercial purposes. This means that they provide an ability to hack into private Facebook postings, WhatsApp messages, and so on. And once the ‘perfect’ crime of data theft has been committed – even if ‘only’ to sell more shirts or milk – who’s to say how such data may be used and where it might reach?

In 1970, I was 9 years old. I remember a commercial for Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate – see here – whose lyrics went something like this:

In the supersonic, scientific, psychedelic ’seventies
Isn’t it nice to know …
There’s still the same great taste
Of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.

Chocolate as it used to be,
Chocolate as it always will be! 
Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.

You knew that however sophisticated and advanced the world had become, it was mainly flashing lights and machines, not an all pervasive cloud of cookies and click collectors supplying the world of Big Data in the Cloud, watching our every move, and in a way largely unbeknown to us, praying for and preying on our ignorance and, let it be said, our need for instant gratification, the consequences be damned.

In our ever so pixelated world, made up of bits and bytes, computers and cookies, trades and tablets, screens and supply, the World of big data is ignored, almost as much as the air that we breathe and the water that we drink.

Yet some naïve part of us still wants to believe that when we do something as simple as buying a bar of chocolate, shopping online, or sending an email, no harm will befall us. We want to believe that we will be protected in the same way that we take for granted the cleanliness of the air that we breathe and the water that we drink (which we shouldn’t – take for granted, I mean).

And in the same way that the mouse in our story trusts that the little boy has no nefarious intent, and is just being kind… Are we the mouse? Expecting that a cookie is just a biscuit, you know, the kind made of flour, eggs and sugar, when really it is nothing more than a way to feed the big data behemoth?

And if a cookie isn’t really a cookie, then who is the little boy?