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Book review: Small Data by Martin Lindstrom

Book review: Small Data by Martin Lindstrom

Lindstrom travels the world to uncover trends and opportunities in the book

Martin Lindstrom is a fascinating man with a fascinating skill. Part detective, part psychologist, part anthropologist and part brand-builder, he is an observer, collector and analyser of small data – the seemingly insignificant pieces of information we all carry in, on and around us that can explain who we are, what we think, how we behave and what we want and desire.

Working with some of the most high-profile brands and multinational companies, Lindstrom travels the world to uncover trends and opportunities, and discover hitherto undervalued cultural preferences in order to establish products and services that consciously or subconsciously tap into consumers’ desires.

His latest book, Small Data, explains his Sherlockian methodology through a series of case studies in what is an engrossing, yet sometimes disturbing read.

His talent is incredible. Interviewing groups of people and combing through their homes and lives (with their explicit consent), his ability to pick up on tiny details and weave them into coherent explanations for certain behaviour is compelling. The significance of the regular allusions to Lego does not go unnoticed, as he uses small blocks to build complex structures.

He shows us how the way Saudi Arabians stack their glasses at home is related to their fear of building collapses and an aversion to the colour orange. We see how taboos surrounding physical contact in the United States feed into its paranoia over security. And on a grander scale, how Majid Al Futtaim’s vacation to a Japanese ski resort in the 1990s led to the creation of Dubai as we know it today.

It is not necessarily the leaps from one thing to another that draw you in, but the bits in between – the synapses that allow for a kind of alchemy, passing information along until the original start-point is transformed into a fully-fledged theory.

But despite the wow-factor involved, there are some nagging concerns. Chief among these is the unshakable feeling that Lindstrom is using his skill to help big companies make money. As much as I enjoyed the detective work and problem-solving, there were moments that I felt Lindstrom, or more specifically his employers, are taking advantage of our subconscious – manipulating us and telling us that spending money and buying their wares will make us happier by filling the voids in our existence.

There is an underlying sense that around the world, people of all types, ages, genders, and nationalities are depressed – at least unfulfilled – and that multinationals can make us feel better. For a price, of course. Our susceptibilities are sold to the highest bidder.

Whether it is boosting sales at an American supermarket, selling more packets of cereal or revitalising an offline fashion store, the case studies always end well for the businesses and – so we are told – for us.

This should not entirely overshadow the good work that is involved with Lindstrom’s process. In Russia, for example, he helped launch a mothers-and-children e-commerce site run for and by women – helping give them a voice, a community, and a way to connect with their inner-child that had been lost amid the tough realities of adult life.

Personally, I would have enjoyed reading about more outcomes such as this, where the social benefits trump financial ones and where a tangible difference is made in favour of the people Lindstrom is mining for data, rather than putting the focus on the boost he is bringing to businesses.

For businesses or individuals looking to start small data mining, the final chapter of the book explains how to incorporate the method. It is perhaps the most useful section of the book, especially from a practical point of view, advising on how to see things in a different, more analytical way, and becoming – as Lindstrom labels himself – “a forensic investigator of emotional DNA”.

Overall, Small Data is simply fascinating; as is Lindstrom himself. The case studies, insights and complex processes involved in piecing together profiles and solutions are engrossing and revealing.

But I still felt uneasy at the mercenary sentiment behind the author’s work, using his considerable talent to sell and make money.

At a time when personal data is under siege, small data mining appears to strip us of the most private aspects of ourselves. If that is going to happen, it needs to be for genuine social benefits – not for the profits. of multinational companies.

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