What are the limits of Technological Intrusion?

big brother2Since the early 1900s, Hollywood, TV and fiction have been chock-a-block with visions of a future rife with hyper-connected citizens, oppressive government overlords, wearable computers, self-driving hovercrafts and voice-activated central computer systems that know our every move, thought and location. I’m currently reading Dave Eggers’ “The Circle,” which foretells the emergence of a “Google”-like mega corporation that eerily oversteps its own technological ambitions under the guise of servitude and transparency. 

While this story contains most of the standard sci-fi elements, what is interesting about it is the fact that it takes place in the current time — seemingly only 3 or 4 years from now. Most of the techs featured in the story are really only a few simple updates of programs in use today. I’m no alarmist. New X-ray widget? Sign me up. Nonetheless, reading this creepy tome, it occurs to me that like the frog witlessly wading in the simmering pot of water, we too may soon ‘wake up’ in 2015 only to find ourselves surrounded by a network of all-knowing proximity monitors, connected environments, iBeacons, wearables and drivables — all under the auspices of easier, smarter and more personalized lives (and to make us more targetable to offers from Cinnamon Toast Crunch).

It’s worth pondering: will this new dawn of connectivity really ever take root the way we have imagined? Today we see daily examples of how “transparency” exposes the everyday citizen’s (and celebutard’s) goofs and gaffes: impulsive twitter rants, knuckleheaded photo posts on Facebook, publicly shared personal text messages, IRS email shenanigans, etc. One could argue that these outcomes are a good thing. Corruption is exposed, infidelities are unveiled, errors are debunked, morons are unmasked and all is set right in the world. But do people want everyone to know what they buy? Where they shop? What they drive? Who they meet? Why they like? How they think? I am not too sure. And the evidence seems to point toward a much tougher challenge ahead for those interested in a connected planet.

Point in case: I had the privilege of mediating a panel on Beacons at Media Post’s mCommerce summit in August, where real-world examples of proximity marketing technologies were shared and explained. It was a very provocative discussion and the panel members were a diverse selection of seasoned experts in varying facets of this emerging platform. They included:

Michael Foschetti, managing director, Havas Discovery; Phil Hendrix, director, IMMR; Henry Lawson, CEO, AutoGraph; Scott Varland, creative director, IPG Media Lab;and Jesse Wolfersberger, director, consumer insights, GroupM Next.

One of the prevailing agreements among the panel was the idea that in the end, personal choice is and always will be the final arbiter of any new tech, no matter how intrusive or invasive it may be. Henry Lawson provided a real-world glimpse into how a Beacon-ized installation may soon be like for consumers. He detailed an interesting ‘Minority Report’-like Beacon initiative on London’s Regent Street — called, appropriately, Regent Street. The app connects passersby via Beacons to participating retailers (there are now 120 at last count), which detects those consumers who are within proximity. The Beacons activate the app, which sends personalized promotional notifications with the hopes of luring the potential shopper into the store. The app is showing promise — but the question remains, do consumers want to be electronically nudged when walking down a busy retail area? Its not a pass/fail test. Some will, some won’t, and this is where the real barrier to hyper-connectivity lies.

Here’s the challenge, and it’s a biggie:  Many disparate factors need to be in place for these kinds of programs to work — and they all come down to personal choice. People must first download the app, which requires awareness and a compelling value proposition. The user must then activate the app; so again, sufficient value must be present to ensure that this entire process is completed. The user must then we willing to turn on and keep on their Bluetooth connection, which for some can be a battery drain, or simply a pain in the neck to do. The user then must agree to allow the app to send notifications — adding another interrupter into their already cacophonous mix of alerts, reminders, alarms and buzzes. And then of course, the promotional offers themselves not only need to be relevant and valuable but in addition the promise of the offer must be delivered or the user will abandon the new tech into the trash bin of history.

This is a very complex chain to construct, particularly with the overload of so many other competing apps and techs screaming for attention from the average phone. Not to mention the forthcoming slew of purported features due to enter into the marketplace this month will seemingly add an additional barrage of distractions — health monitors, distance meters, payment actions, watch nodes, etc. It sounds exhausting. When is too much too much? Every new tech is competing for our attention. And only a small handful can win.

There seem to be two distinct types of user technologies in the marketplace right now: Uberized platforms and Beaconized platforms. Uberized platforms are proactive — where the user is enabled to communicate a desired request and get immediate satisfaction. These apps rely on an existing network and infrastructure that is essentially dormant to the user until they have that specific need (a taxi, a pizza, an apartment cleaning, etc.), at which point that network is activated to provide the requested service. These platforms are non-intrusive, silent, stealth, low-impact and inherently “need” based. Beaconized platforms are essentially the opposite — and are reactive. The network and infrastructure is intrusive and immersive, and nudges the user to take actions or take notice or become more aware.

Beaconized platforms have far greater potential, but are harder to build, as the user’s participation, receptivity and “open door” is a requirement. Uber only knows stuff about me when I need it. Beacons know more about me than I do, within the context of my location and circumstance. The barriers with Beaconization are higher — and in the end, people can simply choose to shut out the noise if it gets too loud. The tipping point is upon us. Who will win the war for our minds? 

Originally published in Media Post’s Mobile Marketing Daily on September 9, 2014

 

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