I’m slightly frustrated right now. I just came from a session entitled Emerging Trends of Mobile Technology, where the launching pad started with smartphones. Throughout the session, the emphasis was on how we use old technology in combination with new ones to form an innovative tool. For example, image recognition to create augmented realities and find cut-throat product prices, &c.
Most people in the room seemed to be developers or designers of some sort, and many of the questions were based on cutting edge technology, the next wave, “web 3.0.” But while everyone was drooling over their next money-generating app, a question was left out: What are the moral implications of this technology?
I’m not saying none of these things should be created, but with the rat-race to create the next best app, who’s thinking about what we’re potentially institutionalizing? Image recognition of the Coke brand that takes you directly to the site. Bar codes that show you product prices for the 10 closest competitors. Existing technology that might be creatively wielded via phones to discern race, sex, &c. through image recognition.
I mention these because they were the suggestions I took greatest issue with. I should give full disclosure at this point that I do not own a smart phone. The most cutting edge technology on my phone is T9. My impressions of how these phones (esp the iPhone) behave were primarily informed by the videos playing on screen.
Using specific examples, I’m going to illustrate what I mean, piece by piece.
- Brand recognition that leads you to a specific site: I don’t expect this feature to stay the same (or at least hope not), but the video illustrated a smart phone snapping shots of a coke can. After processing the image, the phone landed the user on Coke’s home page. The problem with this is probably apparent. It’s a marketer’s dream. But if phones are programmed to take users to specific product pages, what about commentary on those products? Those become secondary, and the user must take extra steps to find that content. An implication is made by this type of user landing. It makes it hard to find relevant commentary (i.e.: KillerCoke.org. At one point, Coke bought KillerCoke.com to intercept users).
- Barcodes and competition: I’ve seen the Google phone do this, where it will recognize a barcode and immediately pull up prices from nearby and online competitors. One person asked the panel about how this affects local businesses. The response was something along the lines of capitalism’s goal is the end user’s satisfaction. If businesses can’t keep up with that, then they must come up with a more competitive strategy. Honestly, I disagree with this. Here are two thoughts.
- There is such a thing as a loss leader. One store’s prices are sometimes cheaper than its competitor because other prices within the store make up for the loss.
- Some things have a cost that is not immediately clear. I posted a video of Ira Glass a couple of weeks ago in which he explained one of his convoluted stories. His point was that in order for us to eat better, Mexicans eat worse so we can get year-round tomatoes grown on their land. This parallels other issues as well: environmental effects, health hazards, &c.
- Profiling by leveraging existing technology: This was by far the most disturbing. The panelists mentioned there was existing technology already used by law enforcement to capture criminals by recognizing race, gender and many other features. What if this could be leveraged online to direct users to relevant suggestions and material? We are far from being beyond the constructions of race and gender. Why is it so important for demographic questionnaires to further subdivide”‘white” into “white/non-Hispanic” or “Hispanic?” The classification has more to do with U.S. immigration than universal truth; every country defines race differently.
- In a recent example of institutionalizing race, SXSW offered a t-shirt with a white woman listening to her iPod. This was the only t-shirt they sold with any human figure on it, and instead of leaving the skin tone blank, they colored it in with a soft peach. “White” has become the new racelessness.
As far as gender and sex is concerned, which would image recognition be trying to identify? So many problems with gender and sex come from their dichotomies. Many contemporary human rights movements are trying to move beyond that. How might this technology reinforce what we’re trying to leave behind?
I acknowledge that these were merely suggestions of a possible web 3.0 future and none of them might come true. However, what concerns me is the gravity of this brainstorm. At the very least, it is indicative of what’s to come and should caution us about what could happen if profit and recognition spearhead innovation rather than improved service.
I spy with my little eye… Something odd about this popular music video.