Do you also have Peter’s Problem?

Pet·ers Pro·blem.

The set of problems that arise if one’s online profile is incorrect, resulting in unsuitable online advertising and ratings which may limit your access to information and services regulated by these ratings and clustering based on one’s profile.

In his latest novel (1), the German cabaret artist Marc-Uwe Kling envisions an absurdist post-modern future in a country that for marketing reason chose to rename itself “Qualityland” and of which (also for marketing reasons) all inhabitants must only use superlatives when speaking about it.

The protagonist, Peter Arbeitsloser (Peter Unemployed – to increase transparency, children in Qualityland take their parents’ job title at the time of birth as surname), suffers from a particular problem: The major online actors, TheShopThe world’s most popular online retailer -, which sends you products you will like based on your profile, the social media platform Everybody – everybody is on Everybody! and as well as QualityPartner the dating service that chooses your partner for you-, have gotten it wrong:  Peter receives things he has no use for, he is made to hang out with people he does not like and is dating someone he cannot stand. All of it is due to the fact that people have completely surrendered to the suggestions and recommendations of the underlying algorithms making it virtually impossible to consciously make one’s own choices.

Now Peter has been misclassified by all of these platforms. The most obvious consequences like the TheShop sending him highly inappropriate dolphin-shaped items seem like nothing more than a nuisance at first glance. Much more problematic though is the fact that Qualityland’s society has decided to also completely rely on one’s online profile for any sort of aptitude tests, such as recruiting or any sort of social stance. Much like Black Mirror’s episode Nosedive,  one’s profile is condensed into a personal score which functions as a shortcut to one’s worth in society.

Peter, at some point, drops down to a 9 out of a 100 and is therefore part of the “useless” category of society, banning him from most of the daily life. (For real life examples of this see (4))

So, what does Peter’s tale wants us to do? To stop using our favorite online services is hardly an option. But to take ownership of our profiles and to what purpose it is used might be worthwhile.

The twist however is where this highly amusing piece of fiction comes to its limits: Having Peter’s problem becomes less and less likely. Already today, having access to someone’s “likes” on social media makes algorithms far more capable of judging one’s personality than ones acquaintances, friends and family. (2)

While the current mood tends to go to more transparency toward what our data is used for, it must still be clear, that once we create data points in public, conclusions can be drawn from that. This includes also not quite voluntarily produced data aka data collection of which we cannot opt out easily, such as face recognition in public – see again (4))

It is the far greater challenge for us to decide, what we, both as citizens and consumers, would like to do with this data and how we would like to steer our ownership of it.

As organizations collecting these personal profiles, the need for a transparent usage policy of these profiles, that is a

  • clearly defined data model/structure,
  • an explicit formulation of intent of usage visible to the user,
  • and a defined data life cycle from collection to an option of deletion (e.g. flow chart style)

becomes, in my opinion, more and more important. First, because of  legal reasons (5), and secondly, to continue to provide any “data driven” added value of quality (pun intended) based on correct and consciously given data.


(1) For now, Qualityland is only available in German – but Marc-Uwe Kling’s first series The Kangaroo Chronicles is already available in English.

(2) Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior.  Michal KosinskiDavid Stillwell, and Thore Graepel. 

(3) If you’re interested in what kind of conclusions Google and co have drawn from your online behavior, check out the following links:

(4) The Chinese Government seems to also to be quite ambitious in this direction.

(5) GDPR is in place since May 25th 2018.