Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

High-tech wizardry may ultimately belong to marketers
There’s a recent spot from IBM that has haunted me since I saw it. It is part of an image campaign that gives us a peek at what lies beyond the horizon of the wild, wired future.
The ad opens on our hero, slumped on a bench in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square, maniacally shouting nonsensical syllables across the eerily empty piazza.
No, he’s not a schizophrenic tourist who forgot his meds back at the hotel. A close-up reveals this apparent psychotic episode is, in fact, business as usual: The guy is blurting commands at his wireless, wearable, voice-activated computer as its tiny screen displays–what else?–stock quotes a few inches from his twitching eyeball. “Up! Down! Buy!” he barks, much to the alarm of the square’s trademark pigeons.
I assume the ad is meant to fill us with happy anticipation for the day when we, too, can sit in the shadow of one of the world’s architectural wonders and conduct business as if we never left the office. To be frank, I’m with the pigeons on this one.
I’m no Luddite, yet my heart sinks at the thought of a dystopia in which we roam global streets muttering to ourselves like halfway-house escapees and every place looks the same. What makes it more chilling is that IBM is right: Schizoid Future Guy is coming, and ain’t nothing gonna stop him.
I get the same sinking feeling when I read the reports from the big January trade shows. At the auto show in Detroit, as car makers rush to produce hundreds of thousands of talking cars by year’s end, Ford revealed its 24.7 concept: voice-activated cars in which drivers can manage their e-mail on the road.
The International Builders Show featured prototypes of ovens that ask the size of your roast and refrigerators that connect to the Internet. For some reason, no one has yet come up with the one innovation that would truly reflect our modern lifestyle: a stove that makes dinner reservations. But never fear. With one of those satellite-linked navigation systems, your car can do it.
All this culminates in the mother of intelligent connectivity: the smart house. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, home networking was the big story, attracting a record number of exhibitors. The smart home, coming to an upscale development near you, is run by a fully networked computer that can control everything from the volume of your home theater to the thermostat to the bathroom lights.
Needless to say, there’s an added benefit to having networked toasters and online freezers. Every tuna casserole and medium-rare steak you and your appliances cook up will leave a trail of digital crumbs for marketers to track, the better to send coupons to your refrigerator.
Like IBM’s Erewhon on the Adriatic, smart cars, appliances and houses are inevitable. Which raises the eternal question: Does marketing make people want things they don’t want or need?
Surely, no one needs a computer to raise and lower their shades or a refrigerator that measures a packaged good’s sodium content. (I speak as one who paid a premium for a dishwasher with extra controls that I never use. The “fine china” cycle? Who was I kidding?)
Even the people at MIT’s Media Lab who invent this stuff admit that a microwave that talks to a refrigerator is technology looking for a reason to be. Moreover, few people in our VCR-challenged nation are equipped to handle this technological oasis. Indeed, the development of smart technology raises the issue of whether consumers’ buying decisions can be unduly influenced.
Does anyone really look forward to the day when he can experience, in the comfort of his own home, the workday frustration of waiting for the MIS team to fix the downed computer system?
True, it’s convenient to be able to de-ice the driveway while sitting on the beach in a subtropical clime. Yet there is something counterintuitive about turning your life at home into a glitch-magnet just so you can manage the house while you’re away.
Besides, there is a low-tech, low-cost way to watch your house while you are out of town–or at least there used to be. It’s called neighbors.
So who needs and wants this stuff? The people who make it, of course. Our machines have reached such high levels of mechanical efficiency and utility, there’s little reason to upgrade. So will we get smart machines whether we want them or not?
Just more proof that consumers make choices, but not under conditions of their own choosing.