The future isn’t a robot boot stamping on a human face forever. It’s a world where everything you see has a little telemarketer inside them, one that knows everything about you and never, ever, stops selling things to you.
In all fairness, this might be an slight oversimplification. Besides telemarketers, objects will also be possessed by shop attendants, customer support representatives, and conmen.
What these much-maligned but ubiquitous occupations (and I’m not talking here about their personal qualities or motivations; by and large, they are among the worst exploited and personally blameless workers in the service economy) have in common is that they operate under strict and explicitly codified guidelines that simulate social interaction in order to optimize a business metric.
When a telemarketer and a prospect are talking, of course, both parties are human. But the prospect is, however unconsciously, guided by a certain set of rules about how conversations develop. For example, if somebody offers you something and you say no, thanks, the expected response is for that party to continue the conversation under the assumption that you don’t want it, and perhaps try to change your mind, but not to say ok, I’ll add it to your order and we can take it out later. The syntax of each expression is correct, but the grammar of the conversation as a whole is broken, always in ways specifically designed to manipulate the prospect’s decision-making process. Every time you have found yourself talking on the phone with a telemarketer, or interacting with a salesperson, far longer than you wanted to, this was because you grew up with certain unconscious rules about the patterns in which conversations can end — and until they make the sell, they will neither initiate nor acknowledge any of them. The power isn’t in their sales pitch, but in the way they are taking advantage of your social operating system, and the fact that they are working with a much more flexible one.
Some people, generally described by the not always precise term sociopath, are just naturally able to ignore, simulate, or subvert these underlying social rules. Others, non-sociopathic professional conmen, have trained themselves to be able to do this, to speak and behave in ways that bypass or break our common expectations about what words and actions mean.
And then there are telemarketers, who these days work with statistically optimized scripts that tell them what to say in each possible context during a sales conversation, always tailored according to extensive databases of personal information. They don’t need to train themselves beyond being able to convey the right emotional tone with their voices: they are, functionally, the voice interface of a program that encodes the actual sales process, and that, logically, has no need to conform to any societal expectation of human interaction.
It’s tempting to call telemarketers and their more modern cousins, the computer-assisted (or rather computer-guided) sales assistants, the first deliberately engineered cybernetic sociopaths, but this would miss the point that what matters, what we are interacting with, isn’t a sales person, but the scripts behind them. The person is just the interface, selected and trained to maximize the chances that we will want to follow the conversational patterns that will make us vulnerable to the program behind.
Philosophers have long toyed with a mental experiment called the Chinese Room: There is a person inside a room who doesn’t know Mandarin, but has a huge set of instructions that tells her what characters to write in response to any combination of characters, for any sequence of interactions. The person inside doesn’t know Mandarin, but anybody outside who does can have an engaging conversation by slipping messages under the door. The philosophical question is, who is the person outside dialoging with? Does the woman inside the room know Mandarin in some sense? Does the room know?
Telemarketers are Chinese Rooms turned inside-out. The person is outside, and the room is hidden from us, and we aren’t interacting socially with either. We only think we do, or rather, we subconsciously act as if we do, and that’s what makes cons and sales much more effective than, rationally, they should be.
We rarely interact with salespeople, but we interact with things all the time. Not because we are socially isolated, but because, well, we are surrounded by things. We interact with our cars, our kitchens, our phones, our websites, our bikes, our clothes, our homes, our workplaces, and our cities. Some of them, like Apple’s Siri or the Sims, want us to interact with them as if they were people, or at least consider them valid targets of emotional empathy, but what they are is telemarketers. They are designed, and very carefully, to take advantage of our cultural and psychological biases and constraints, whether it’s Siri’s cheerful personality or a Sim’s personal victories and tragedies.
Not every thing offer us the possibility of interacting with them as if they were human, but that doesn’t stop them from selling to us. Every day we see the release of more smart objects, whether it’s consumer products or would-be invisible pieces of infrastructure. Connected to each other and to user profiling databases, they see us, know us, and talk to each and to their creators (and to their creators’ “trusted partners,” who aren’t necessarily anybody you have even heard of) about us.
And then they try to sell us things, because that’s how the information economy seems to work in practice.
In some sense, this isn’t new. Expensive shoes try to look cool so other people will buy them. Expensive cars are in a partnership with you to make sure everybody knows how awesome they make you look. Restaurants hope that some sweet spot of service, ambiance, food, and prices will make you a regular. They are selling themselves, as well as complementary products and services.
But smart objects are a qualitatively different breed, because, being essentially computers with some other stuff attached to them, what their main function is might not be what you bought them for.
Consider an internet-connected scale that not only keeps track of your weight, but also sends you through a social network congratulatory messages when you reach a weight goal. From your point of view, it’s just a scale that has acquired a cheerful personality, like a singing piece of furniture in a Disney movie, but from the point of view of the company that built and still controls it, it’s both a sensor giving them information about you, and a way to tell you things you believe are coming from something – somebody who knows you, in some ways, better than friends and family. Do you believe advertisers won’t know whether to sell you diet products or a discount coupon in the bakery around the corner from your office? Or, even more powerfully, that your scale won’t tell you “You have earned yourself a nice piece of chocolate cake ;)” if the bakery chain is the one who purchased that particular “pageview?”
Let’s go to the core of advertising: feelings. Much of the Internet is paid for by advertisers’ belief that knowing your internet behavior will tell them how you’re feeling and what you’re interested on, which will make it easier to sell things to you. Yet browsing is only one of the things we do that computers know about in intimate detail. Consider the increasing number of internet-connected objects in your home that are listening to you. Your phone is listening for your orders, but that doesn’t mean it’s all it’s listening for. The same goes for your computer, your smart TV (some of which are actually looking at you as well), even some children’s dolls. As the Internet of Things grows way beyond the number of screens we can deal with, or apps we are willing to use to control them, voice will become the user interface of choice, just like smartphones overtook desktop computers. That will mean that possibly dozens of objects, belonging to a handful of companies, will be listening to you and selling that information to whatever company pays enough to become a “trusted partner.” (Yes, this is and will remain legal. First, because we either don’t read EULAs or do and try not to think about them. And second, because there’s no intelligence agency in the planet who won’t lobby to keep it legal.)
Maybe they won’t be reporting everything you say verbatim, that will depend on how much external scrutiny there is on the industry, but your mood (did you yell at your car today, or sang aloud as you drove?), your movements, the time of the day you wake up, which days you cook and which days you order takeout? Everybody trying to sell things to you will know all of this, and more.
That will be just an extension of the steady erosion of our privacy, and even of our expectation of it. More delicate will be the way in which our objects will actively collaborate in this sales process. Your fridge’s recommendations when you run out of something might be oddly restricted to a certain brand, and if you never respond to them, shift to the next advertiser with the best offer — that is, the most profitable for whoever is running the fridge’s true program, back in some data center somewhere. Your watch might choose to delay low-priority notifications while you’re watching a commercial from a business partner or, more interestingly, choose to interrupt you every time there’s a competitor’s commercial. Your kitchen will tell you that it needs some preventive maintenance, but there’s a discount on Chinese takeover if you press that button or just say “Sure, Kitchen Kate.” If you put it on shuffle, your cloud-based music service will tailor its very much only random-looking selection based on where you are and what the customer tracking companies tells them you’re doing. No sad music when you’re at the shopping mall or buying something online! (Unless they have detected that you’re considering buying something out of nostalgia or fear.) There’s already a sophisticated industry dedicated to optimizing the layout, sonic background, and even smells of shopping malls to maximize sales, much in the same way that casinos are thoroughly designed to get you in and keep you inside. Doing this through the music you’re listening to is just a personalized extension of these techniques, an edge that every advertiser is always looking for.
If, in defense of old-school human interaction, you go inside some store to talk with an actual human being instead of an online shop, a computer will be telling each sales person, through a very discrete earbud, how you’re feeling today, and how to treat you so you’ll feel you want to buy whatever they are selling, the functional equivalent of almost telepathic cold reading skills (except that it won’t be so cold; the sales person doesn’t know you, but the sales program… the sales program knows you, in many ways, better than you do yourself). In a rush? The sales program will direct the sales person to be quick and efficient. Had a lousy day? Warmth and sympathy. Or rather simulations thereof; you’re being sold to by a sales program, after all, or an Internet of Sales Programs, all operating through salespeople, the stuff in your home and pockets, and pretty much everything in the world with an internet connection, which will be almost everything you see and most of what you don’t.
Those methods work, and have probably worked since before recorded history, and knowing about them doesn’t make them any less effective. They might not make you spend more in aggregate; generally speaking, advertising just shifts around how much you spend on different things. From the point of view of companies, it’ll just be the next stage in the arms race for ever more integrated and multi-layered sensor and actuator networks, the same kind of precisely targeted network-of-networks military planners dream of.
For us as consumers, it might mean a world that’ll feel more interested in you, with unseen patterns of knowledge and behavior swirling around you, trying to entice or disturb or scare or seduce you, and you specifically, into buying or doing something. It will be a somewhat enchanted world, for better and for worse.