Viewpoint: The hyper-individual

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Image caption Pushing your buttons: Is technology putting power back into the hands of consumers?

I have long been interested in consumer empowerment - the idea that the balance of power has been slowly shifting from companies to consumers.

Technology has of course been a huge driver, as tools emerge that allow consumers to see their electricity expenditure, compare prices, track their health and home energy use - and make the best decisions (or even automate the decision making process) based on this information.

We've been tracking a number of trends that have charted the rise and rise of consumer empowerment, more on those later, but we've recently begun to see evidence of the emergence of a new breed of consumer - the hyper-individual.

This is not just the consumer who gets the best from their money and time, or the multi-tasker searching for a good deal.

This is the confluence of many trends - the consumer who lives in the cloud and who, through the adoption of these new skills, has become one very powerful, super-charged consumer who recognises the value of freely available information and uses it to regain control in the marketplace.

To the max

So let's look at the genesis of this trend.

Firstly, a behaviour psychologists call maximising - in consumption terms, this means we try to make the best decisions with our money.

Image caption Richard Nicholls of the Future Foundation

It's not hard to see how modern technology can help us achieve this, as it gives us access to so much information about almost any product, service or purchase.

Price comparison websites, consumer reviews and access to all manner of detailed information means that we have never been better able to make informed choices in almost any market - as long as we have the time and know-how (and an internet connection).

There is a huge benefit to maximising, especially when it comes to high-value purchases like holidays, cars and home technology.

Often, however, maximising is a poor decision-making strategy as you can spend endless hours comparing specifications and prices. Rationality becomes irrational!

Recommendation engine

This is where our second trend comes in - the end of inefficiency.

This is the rise of the smart algorithm and websites, apps and services that can mine data and suggest the best choice to us - in other words, leaving the maximising to the machine.

There is a lot of interest in these kinds of services - recent Future Foundation research found that 70% of British respondents said they would be interested in a real-time online price-monitoring service that alerted them the moment the price of a product fell, and 62% in a service that would move money automatically between savings accounts to make sure they earned the best interest rate.

There's obviously the privacy issue to consider - a suspicion of companies keeping our personal data safe and a growing awareness of our digital (and mobile) footprints.

But our research has often found that many people are happy for companies to collect their personal data in return for some tangible benefit - better prices, deals, smarter, tailored recommendations.

As the decade progresses, more and more services will be able to capture data on our behaviour and use smart algorithms to make recommendations.

For example, a bike that monitors performance and sends information to an online account; a TV that analyses viewing habits and alerts you to other programmes you might want to watch; a fridge that scans supermarket items, warns you when they're approaching their use-by dates and suggests recipes to use them up; a cosmetics store that can detect skin tone and recommend the best colours.

Some of these services already exist but have yet to hit the mainstream. This is the Amazon "Recommendations for you" or Apple "Genius" writ large.

Track it down

The third trend is the quantified self.

We can track and quantify so many aspects of our lives now, whether through technology (fitness trackers) or legislation (food labelling).

With the right app, service or device, it's never been easier to track our personal finances, home energy use, media consumption, calorific intake or miles walked.

So the hyper-individual trend is about people learning and applying new methods of choice, efficiency, self-monitoring, data tracking and information-gathering in their everyday lives.

And with the proliferation of on-the-go devices offering greater access than ever to the world around us; with modern time pressures inviting us to lead a more streamlined life, with the boring stuff automated; with an increasingly local outlook, using tools to find resources and discover deals, shops and restaurants wherever we are - well, we can all be a little bit hyper.

Richard Nicholls is media, technology and telecoms account director with the Future Foundation, which identifies and forecasts social and consumer trends and determines the extent of their impacts on markets, services, brands and products.

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