Sleepwalking in a social media nanny state

Posted on August 17, 2010

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When Orwell penned 1984 (in 1948 as it happens, I always wondered why he picked 1984 for the title!) he depicted a dystopian future with Big  Brother endlessly watching you.  Little did he know how close to the truth he’d be.  Although ironically in 2010 it is us who are endlessly watching Big Brother – although I’m not as I can’t stand the programme, but you catch my drift.

Big brother is watching you

Good job, because less and less people are watching Big Brother

Orwell feared the deprivation of information, the removal of books for instance, and a resulting nanny state.  Aldous Huxley, in his 1932 novel, “Brave New World” depicts a similarly dreary future, although I think Huxley’s reasoning is actually closer to the truth.  Where Orwell feared the removal of books by a controlling state, Huxley feared that books would become irrelevant because people wouldn’t be bothered with the chore of actually reading.

If you think about it, that’s where we’re already headed.  We already have ‘txt-speak’ (in 1984 there is Newspeak – ‘the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year’) which is doing more to obliterate the language than Microsoft’s US dictionary in Word ever managed.  I know the more liberal folks will say that it’s just a development of language and language has always been developing, so don’t get your knickers in a twist. But, just think, these are the same people who’ll croak, “We just need to listen to the reasons why he’s angry” as they are being violently throttled with a twisted pair of their own knickers, ironically held in the hands of an expert in txt speak – so let’s ignore them.

Informal communications are changing and so are the arts – take music and literature for instance.  The iPod is a great device, but it has killed the concept of an album.  Some of my favourite songs are what you’d call “growers”, as in I didn’t particularly like them on first hearing them, but over time listening to an album they began to shine and in the end had far more longevity than their more ‘catchy’ counterparts.  Will these kind of songs disappear as artists are forced to write for the iPod generation?  I hope not.   What about literature?  Is our continual programming towards the consumption of ‘quick hits’  going to kill the novel?   Will literature consist solely of blogs and tweets?  Have you ever heard someone say, ‘the film is much better than the book’, I doubt it.  If someone does say that to you, just walk away from them, for they are already lost…

Is this diatribe actually going anywhere?  If you’re a member of the iPod generation then I’ve already lost you, which is a shame as I’m getting the ‘grower’ bit of this post.

Sentient selling

All of this brings me onto something I saw yesterday- watch the video here.  Sapient, (meaning: having or showing great wisdom or sound judgmentalso an IT company’s name) seemingly cast aside sound judgment in their project to get clever with a vending machine.

They have applied a tonne of technology to an ice cream vending machine in order to give away free ice creams if you smile enough.  What a fun and harmless concept, or is it?

One thing I know about marketers, and governments for that matter, is that they like to know as much as they can about their customers in order that they can most-effectively control and persuade them to do what they would like them to do.  So, imagine how we might use technology like the technology developed by Sapient.

The vending machine they’ve developed can work out your age, sex and mood just from looking at you – if you smile enough it will free vend an ice cream.  Am I the only one that finds this a little disturbing?   It’s not a massive step for the vending machine to look at you and decide that you’re too fat for an ice cream.  If you apply a liberal train of thought to this then you can only come to the one conclusion and that is that it’s our moral obligation to protect fat people from themselves.  You could even link up the machine to the central NHS database and the machine would know that the person in front of it is a diabetic, so in that instance it is morally obliged to vend an apple even though the customer wants a Magnum.

I’m sorry, it’s bad enough when a shop assistant, albeit a posh shopping assistant, looks down their nose at you in a posh shop.  Can you imagine the first time a vending machine does that to you – how’s that for your morale?  Anyway, as far as I can tell from the video, the vending machine only vends to good looking people.  Poor Joseph Merrick, not only was he called ‘The Elephant Man’, but in tomorrow’s society he couldn’t even get an ice cream as the vending machine wouldn’t be able to recognise him as a human being.

Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.   I think Orwell was right in many ways, but he over-estimated our resistance to surveillance.  Can you imagine what he’d think about the fact that we freely give away our privacy to Twitter, Facebook and the others?  Huxley, was probably a better judge of our collective character and our willingness to participate, so I guess he’d just tut.

The next step for the internet is something called ‘the semantic web‘.  Semantic web is a structured way of sharing content such that computer programs are able to intelligently search the content of web sites without human intervention.  I guess it’s the first step towards a more sentient internet.

So, if you put together our willingness to give away our habits, desires, needs etc with a sentient internet you get a potent marketing mix.  In tomorrow’s world you’ll only be marketed to by companies that know you can afford their products.  Maybe the newspapers will send you news in a language that they’ve deemed you can understand.  If there is a polarisation in today’s society, just imagine tomorrow’s – now who sounds like a liberal?

So, the next time you see a great new piece of technology it’s probably not a bad idea to apply a bit of Orwellian thinking to its implications.  Maybe I’m just a pessimist, but I don’t like where all this is taking us – what do you think?

A disturbing idea

A disturbing idea, nice on the face of it, but not underneath.

Face Recognition

Face Recognition | the vending machine can guess the age, sex and mood of the person. The scale for 'deranged' isn't shown.

The future of vending

The future of vending and all its worrying connotations.

Here’s an interesting pictorial depiction of the difference between Huxley and Orwell’s views.

Here’s what marketers are doing with the current web technology (on CNN)

…and a serious marketing discussion about the semantic web, if you’re into that kind of thing.

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