The day will come, very soon, when your phone will hear the sound of a crying baby and an ad for diapers will appear. Or it picks up on an argument you've had with your spouse and delivers ads for divorce lawyers, along with a dating site or two.
Sound far-fetched? Andrew Bosworth, Facebook's former director of engineering, told Technology Review that the company was exploring ways to personalize ads based on audio recognized by a smartphone's sensors, as well as location information. If Facebook "recognized music playing or even a person humming a tune, for example, it could suggest relevant online content or media purchases," wrote the Technology Review, paraphrasing Bosworth.
Facebook isn't just trying to make the world a "more open and connected place," in the words of its founder, but is pushing to make our wallets more open and connected. It is racing against countless companies trying to wield the web, as well as the information we consciously and unconsciously share with it, to do the same.
From photo-sharing apps and gaming systems to hardware makers and location-based social networks, tech firms increasingly seem to have one thing on their mind: controlling the "buy" centers in our brains.
The websites and gadgets we use have become sophisticated drivers of desire, enabling brands to hit us with a powerful double whammy: We can be pitched constantly -- and in deeply personal ways -- and we can shop constantly. The iPod put a thousand songs in your pocket, but the iPhone has thrown in the entire mall.
In 1899, sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe splurging in order to show off. A century later, technology has introduced new forces that are reshaping the sphere of consumption. We've entered what I call the age of "continuous consumption": spending because we can -- and are encouraged to -- any time, any place.
So what happens to our inclinations if advertisers have sophisticated ways both to suggest what we're missing and to provide an immediate way to fill that lack? Whose interests will innovation serve, ours or the advertisers'?
The shift to an 'always being pitched, always purchasing' online existence is particularly glaring in the case of social outlets. The original model for social media was one in which innovation followed connection, but social media 2.0 is embracing a new model in which innovation follows consumption. "How do we more effectively connect people with each other?" has become, "How do we innovate to more effectively connect peoples' cash with companies?"
Foursquare recently announced that its restaurant recommendations will include "Promoted Updates," also known as ads, with dining suggestions from the company's sponsors. Facebook, which pitches us on Pepsi and Visa through the smiling faces of our friends, is adding more ads to the site and building a payment platform to "simplify the purchase experience," that is, to help you shop more on the site. Services such as Fancy and Svpply eliminate the life updates to focus purely on consumer fantasies: Users don't share engagement news or baby photos, just the products they'd like to buy.
Not only is advertising more intimate -- mediated by our friends, shaped by our clicks and, via phones, omnipresent -- but shopping has never been more streamlined. We can splurge without a second thought -- buy shoes from your smartphone the second you spot them on the street -- and shopping online has been sanitized of all references to real money. Downloading a free app from Apple's App Store requires the same steps as purchasing a paid one. The only way to know what I spend on iTunes is to scour my credit card bill at the end of the month. And research suggests the less contact we have with cash, the more we spend.
People aren't just opting for small ticket items when buying on-the-go: On One King's Lane, a home furnishings site, the average value of orders placed on iPhones is actually higher than those placed through its desktop site. One customer bought an $18,000 item from a smartphone.
Linking brands to the desire nerve-center of our brains and putting a mall in our hands at all times is creating unprecedented market efficiencies, which more quickly move our money into companies' coffers and feed Silicon Valley's data-industrial complex.
We've created the "perfect market," said Rashi Glazer, co-director of the Center for Marketing and Technology at the University of California, Berkeley. "We're seeing the fulfillment of the idea of frictionless transactions, where markets are totally fluid and efficient."
But what about the people on the receiving end of the pitches that get thumbs twitching toward the "buy" button? The technological progress that from one perspective looks like an important economic stimulus could, from another, inflate a consumer spending bubble built on lack of willpower and vulnerability to persuasive personal pitches. Companies promise our data will help them "reward" us for good behavior. But the behavior for which a company like Coca-Cola or Denny's wants to "reward" me may be not match my own idea of what's "good" for me. Will the incentive to save up beat whatever incentive Barney's gives me to splurge?
"We'll end up in a situation where we live paycheck to paycheck," predicted Martin Lindstrom, a brand consultant and author of "Brandwashed." "We've become kind of like gamblers, where we get hooked on the moment, which could end up in situation where we're in debt."
While the world frets over the Internet-enabled information overload it confronts, little attention has been paid to the psychological and behavioral consequences of being transformed into continuous consumers.
According to Lindstrom, we're likely to adapt to the deluge of marketing messages by tuning them out -- and each other, just as personal emails are lost amid spam and daily deals, or squeezed out on a small smartphone screen. Already, an alert on my smartphone from a company, like Foursquare suggesting a restaurant, claims as much real estate as a text message from my mother.
Marketing expert John Gerzema counters that facial recognition, location data and other Silicon Valley inventions will actually make shopping experiences more humanized.
"It returns an intimacy that we used to have before shopping malls and megastores, just like the local soda shop that knew your favorite flavor," said Gerzema. "We will be able to walk into any store and be recognized by our phone."
But where our relationship with the man behind the counter at the soda shop was personal, and depended on volunteering new information to him at each new visit, the pitches aimed at us by our smartphones are unsolicited and generated by information we may not even be aware that we're sharing. Is that intimate -- or insidious?
That sort of specific service is exactly what has many worried. Privacy advocates and even Madison Ave. ad gurus see a danger in a world where the offers and opportunities we receive are predicated on algorithms' assumptions about who we are. Companies will speak differently to different customers based on the data that's been collected about them, correct or not. Someone who comes from a more disadvantaged background and has sought out bargains online might only see ads for low-paying jobs or discount dentists, whereas a web user who frequents Saks.com and is traced to Manhattan's Upper East Side will see better positions and superior physicians. Sure, companies have always offered rewards for VIP customers. But in the future, better treatment will apply to a great many more experiences -- your wait time at the supermarket, or the price of shampoo -- and could be based on something as seemingly irrelevant as an SAT score or the number of incoming emails you receive. And while a discount at a local restaurant might seem like a nice perk, and relevant ads preferable to random ones, do customers know the price they're paying with their privacy? Probably not. Since it launched in 2004, Gmail has delivered targeted ads based on keywords in users' email messages. Yet a 2010 study of Gmail users found that less than half of users knew the email service was using personal messages to generate ads, the majority assuming that private correspondence was, well, private. Sixteen percent thought such ads would be illegal, 13 percent said an email service would never do such a thing because of the consumer backlash that would result, and Stanford University fellow Aleecia McDonald recalls that 4 percent "wrote in to yell at me because they thought the idea was so outrageous."
The idea of Facebook or another site listening in on your conversations might seem outrageous, too. But if continuous consumption continues as the driver of so much of what happens on the web, then the Internet will embrace its new personality and continue behaving in ways designed to meet that goal.