Marketing Innovations Use Smart Technology to Track Our Personal Data — But at What Cost?

Smart technology has revolutionized marketing. In the current era, companies drive sales by tracking people’s locations, and sometimes even their facial features, to send them targeted ads. So much of our data is tracked by our personal devices — what does this mean for the future of business?

The Hypermap

We can imagine ourselves soon being able to quantify the whole world, turning its people, objects, and properties into structured, actionable information. No need to stick QR codes or RFID patches on every physical object; computer vision and listening, combined with massive outpourings of device data, will map the world at a distance and by force. In a fully recognized, codified, and labelled world, we will know exactly what everything is and exactly where everything is. We can even imagine some way to bounce, Matrix-like, between these two views: atoms and information. Let’s call this environment of total metadata a hypermap.

A hypermapped world is swollen with potential. Nothing would ever be lost again, from car parts to car keys to car thieves. Our bodies will become our identification at our front doors, at the departure gate, and when moving money. Cameras will monitor drivers for fatigue and assembly lines for defects, and recognize illness before we even feel the symptoms. Unknown places will become immediately more familiar, overlaid with translations and context for the traveler. And the hypermap needn’t be constrained to the present; by examining historical images, video, and audio, computers can structure the past. Stretching across time, the hypermap could redefine our histories in ways we’d never have dreamt up.

The possibilities are deeply ambivalent, and should inspire both excitement and fear. Every upside of the hypermap could be harmful in a different context:

· A technology perfect for catching criminals is also ideal for surveillance.

· A world of perfect information is a world ripe for totalitarianism as political dissenters could be easily tracked.

· Your devices could report your every word to police.

· A casual conversation about travel plans could lead to your airfare being tripled.

How Feasible Is the Hypermap?

The hypermap itself is, of course, never fully achievable; there will always be blind spots. But as a future object even partly realized, the hypermap poses profound ethical questions. Even a partially hypermapped world will feed predictive and autonomous systems: sensing the world is a necessary step before acting within it. While the label ‘artificial intelligence’ isn’t always helpful — it mythologizes tech as a new species, a self-directed moral agent outside of our control — algorithms that learn and seek information on their own will scour the hypermap and doubtlessly transform our understanding of the world.

The Social Contract

Seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes took a famously dim view of human character. Hobbes reasoned that without political authority humans would exist in a pure ‘state of nature’, enjoying unlimited freedom but enduring permanent conflict.

“In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain […] no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

— Thomas Hobbes

To stave off this dystopia, we enter into a wordless pledge with one another: the social contract. We agree to submit to forms of authority such as governments, monarchies, or courts, and trade some of our freedoms for security and social stability. For Hobbes, this contract is the basis of political legitimacy, the alternative being chaos and amorality. Anarchists, however, might disagree that authority is necessary, and altruism is widely documented in the animal kingdom despite any purported social contract.

Nonetheless, the idea of a social contract is politically and ethically useful. Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance neatly resolves one of the contract’s potential problems: we’d all want it written in our favour. To stop intelligent people espousing rules that favor intelligence and rich people seeking rules that favour the rich, we draw down the veil, choosing laws as though we don’t know what our personal characteristics and circumstances will be. Only fair that we agree on the rules of the game before dealing each player’s hand.

As market forces burrow into everyday life, the social contract is increasingly in the hands of business. Paying taxes, for example, is an important unwritten clause. Our shared environments and institutions have to be funded somehow yet, even in the face of tax cuts, the tech giants hold immense cash reserves offshore, beyond the grasp of authorities. This clear evasion of social contract duties goes sadly unpunished as monopolistic power makes it easier to dodge your end of the deal.

The social contract relies on reciprocity. A contract only works if we all agree to its terms: We should build only technology that helps humans to flourish; we should help technology to flourish in return. Whether the hypermap or invasive marketing technology helps humans flourish is up for debate, but there is a clear lack of reciprocity between the consumer and the business. This technology seems to only be growing and the more data we track, the closer we get to living in something akin to a hypermap. The future of how this technology is used will be determined by businesses — what will yours do?

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