For the past couple of months I’ve been engaged in reporting on the nexus between major brands and pirate bit-torrent sites. It has been like lifting up a rock to see all the weird life forms crawling out of the light. The New York Times characterized the efforts to pin down who was responsible to Whack A Mole. But what really interested me is that the whole future of the advertising business seems to be based on the premise of what I call a Geo-Behavioral Targeting System. The implicit assumption is that consumers don’t care if Google, Facebook or an Ad Network has a total window into the most intimate details of your personal life, your finances, your aspirations and dreams. All the better to sell you your own future. In the futuristic novel,Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel, Gary Shteyngart posits a world in which your credit score, sexual preferences and other details are available to anyone who points their smartphone at you.
I was reminded of all this reading an piece by Evgeny Morosov in yesterday’s New York Times. Morosov has been a lonely voice in the wilderness, protesting against the rise of Techno-utopianism. In The Perils of Perfection, he worries about what the rise of the ubiquitous App Culture is doing to us.
LAST month Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook’s former marketing director, enthused about a trendy app to “crowdsource absolutely every decision in your life.” Called Seesaw, the app lets you run instant polls of your friends and ask for advice on anything: what wedding dress to buy, what latte drink to order and soon, perhaps, what political candidate to support.
Seesaw offers an interesting twist on how we think about feedback and failure. It used to be that we bought things to impress our friends, fully aware that they might not like our purchases. Now this logic is inverted: if something impresses our friends, we buy it. The risks of rejection have been minimized; we know well in advance how many Facebook “likes” our every decision would accumulate.
Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher who celebrated the anguish of decision as a hallmark of responsibility, has no place in Silicon Valley. Whatever their contribution to our maturity as human beings, decisions also bring out pain and, faced with a choice between maturity and pain-minimization, Silicon Valley has chosen the latter — perhaps as a result of yet another instant poll.
Maybe people don’t want the responsibility of making choices anymore. Maybe our whole lives should be crowdsourced. After all if my friends told me to do something, its not my fault if it turned out to be a stupid move.