08/29/2012 04:11 pm ET | Updated Oct 29, 2012

Lab Rats in the Social Experiment of Personalized Advertising

Advances in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and nuclear energy have turned society into what Dutch ethicist Ibo van de Poel calls a large-scale laboratory for experimenting with the unforeseen consequences of new technologies. In comparison, personalized advertising -- also called targeted and behavioral ads -- doesn't seem nearly so dangerous. It is easy to believe that the worst that can happen is we'll buy a few unnecessary things, lose some privacy, or find some content off-limits (as in the case of new London billboard that uses facial recognition technology to send male and female viewers different information). A more sober look suggests we should be worried about participating in a social experiment that gambles with our human agency and freedom.

Our guard is lowered in part due to the weight of history. Advertising goes back to ancient Egyptian use of papyrus, and it arguably exists in nature, e.g., peacocks flash their wings to attract mates. Further assurance comes from the fact that regulators and consumer rights advocates are working tirelessly to safeguard privacy and secure viable opportunities for us to opt out of undesired marketing.

Unfortunately, there's more at stake than meets the eye. New data-mining techniques and technologies have an unprecedented ability to match products to our particular preferences, interests, moods, activities, and locations. With enhanced knowledge of what makes us tick comes enhanced capacity to modify our behavior by whittling away at our resolve. As the U.S. controversy over Target inadvertently alerting a father to the fact that his teenage daughter is pregnant (by sending her coupons for maternity clothes and related items) demonstrates, it isn't only our present selves that are up for grabs, but our future ones, too.

The more well-done ads feel like seamless, practically invisible personal extensions, the more susceptible we might be to their siren call, especially as expectations build that all user-friendly information and communication technology be customizable. The more commonplace personalized ads become (from recurring displays on social networking sites and online magazines/newspapers, to images on Minority Report-style billboards), the more vulnerable we are to being exploited by what social psychologists call "decision fatigue" -- a state known to result in impulsive behavior.

Because the new generation of ads appear to pose a serious threat to our willpower and it is too early to make strong predictions about the effects of the personalized advertising revolution (which is gaining serious momentum, but probably is still in its technological infancy), the consumer label doesn't cut it. We've become experimental subjects who are rolling the dice with our autonomy in exchange for access to information, services, and goods. Who knows, maybe we'll luck out and adapt just fine. This abstract possibility, however, shouldn't bring too much comfort. As with all social experiments involving technology, we won't know how well we're coping until deep habituation takes hold. By then the allure of the status quo, general aversion to giving up convenience, and the influenced exerted by powerful, economically entrenched companies could prevent us from seeing whether more was given up than was bargained for.

This post originally appeared in Italian on La Lettura, Corriere della Sera.