The internet has opened a huge window onto the range of products and services available to consumers, and revolutionised the way we purchase them. In the UK alone, E-commerce sales have rocketed up fifty-six per cent from £375.1 billion in 2009 to £586 billion in 2017. In some cases, the choice of products is so vast that to compare them as an individual consumer would be nigh on impossible, especially in complex fields such as energy and insurance products. One of the consequences of this is the growth of what are known as algorithmic consumers.
Jesse Norman MP, in his essay in Britain Beyond Brexit, is right to point out that an asymmetry of information has opened up between companies with access to vast quantities of data and expertise to produce complex products, and the consumers who purchase them. Algorithmic consumers – essentially software that can find a product to fit a consumer’s specific needs – can assist in re-balancing the equation.
An algorithm is a decision-making process that employs a set of rules and procedures to supply outcomes based on data inputs. People use similar decision-making processes in their daily lives when, for example, deciding when and what to eat. They will determine how hungry they are, what food they have available, how tasty or healthy each option is, and then they will weigh the answers to these questions (or inputs) in order to reach an outcome in accordance with their preferences.