Earlier this week, the New York Times ran yet another hilariously digital dualist piece on a new surveillance system that lets retailers follow customers’ every move. The systems, mainly through cameras tied into motion capture software, can detect how long you stared at a pair of jeans, or even the grossed-out face you made at this year’s crop of creepy, hyper-sexualized Halloween costumes. The New York Times describes this as an attempt by brick and mortar stores to compete with data-wealthy “e-commerce sites.” (Who says “e-commerce” anymore? Seriously, change your style guide.) Putting aside the fact that most major retailers are also major online retailers, making the implicit distinction in the article almost meaningless, the article completely misses the most important (and disturbing) part of the story: our built environment will be tuned to never-before-seen degrees of precision. We have absolutely no idea what such meticulously built spaces will do to our psyches.
This is an actual thing that was said in our nation’s flagship newspaper:
But while consumers seem to have no problem with cookies, profiles and other online tools that let e-commerce sites know who they are and how they shop, some bristle at the physical version, at a time when government surveillance — of telephone calls, Internet activity and Postal Service deliveries — is front and center because of the leaks by Edward J. Snowden.
Putting aside the larger editorial decision to use “leaks” instead of “revelations” or “disclosed documents by whistleblower” it is beyond obnoxious (even for the business section) to describe people reacting to the dispensing of the information and not the content of the information. Monitoring systems like Nordstrom’s (administered by a company called Euclid which sells the system to large and small businesses alike) are just the sorts of things that the NSA would intercept and monitor. The problem isn’t that Snowden “leaked” the information and now everyone is “bristling” at the idea of surveillance. Rather, now it is widely known that the government has built a system that turns us into boundless informants incapable of keeping a secret so long as we come within reach of a networked device, willingly or otherwise.
The very fact that authors Stephanie Clifford and Quentin Hardy make the connection between “the physical version” of surveillance and the digital surveillance conducted by the NSA at all, should alert the reader to just how interwoven the digital and physical truly are. Tracking someone in a store, also means you’re tracking them “online.” It is unfortunate that the journalists asked a computer information systems professor in a business school about the differences between cookies and in-store surveillance systems (certainly he couldn’t have a vested interest in one of these!), rather than a social scientist or someone else that studies the social and legal aspects of surveillance systems. That oversight, however, is more of an indictment of social scientists’ inability to market themselves as people with valuable insights into these matters, than the work of either journalist.
The exaggerated differences between cookies versus cameras, physical versus digital, gives the authors cover to make the digital dualist, overgeneralizing assumption that consumers care more about tracking when it happens in a brick and mortar store than online. This distinction is silly for two reasons:
First of all, there’s a –for lack of a better term—technological literacy issue at play here. A camera in a store and a sign that says your movements are being tracked via your smartphone is easier to understand than the technical definition of a cookie, let alone these new-fangled “super-cookies.” Even if we’re ready to accept using the Internet as a tacit endorsement of corporate online behavior tracking, we should think twice before making a one-to-one comparison between cookies and cameras. One is a poorly described option in your browser setting, the other is a declaration at the front of the store stating, in excruciatingly PR-crafted terms, that your smartphone is telling Nordstrom where you are and what you’re doing in the store at all times.
Second, let’s not confuse the latest battleground in the fight for control over one’s data as a wholesale acceptance of online tracking and total rejection of in store tracking. By coincidence The New Inquiry’s Rob Horning was tweeting about this article just as I had finished reading it. We both quickly agreed on Rob’s point that “tech journalists [are] now reading learned helplessness as a tacit endorsement” of surveillance technology. (You can read the full conversation here.) The article ignores the fact that most browsers not built by a company that also owns a big search engine, have developed strong preference tools that prevent third party tracking and targeted advertising. It also ignores the protracted legal battles surrounding online behavior tracking, and the massive amount of energy put into projects like (I shit you not) “Panopticlick.”
The implications of Euclid’s technology do not stop at surveillance or privacy. Remember, these systems are meant to feed data to store owners so that they can rearrange store shelves or entire showroom floors to increase sales. Malls, casinos with no deposit bonus, and grocery stores have always been carefully planned out spaces—scientifically arranged and calibrated for maximum profit at minimal cost. Euclid’s systems however, allow for massive and exceedingly precise quantification and analysis. More than anything, what worries me is the deliberateness of these augmented spaces. Euclid will make spaces designed to do exactly one thing almost perfectly: sell you shit you don’t need. I worry about spaces that are as expertly and diligently designed as Amazon’s home page or the latest Pepsi advertisement. A space built on data so rich and thorough that it’ll make focus groups look quaint in comparison.
Euclid will enable the construction of highly agentic spaces. Spaces that can discriminate as well as web sites and lull you into a raw, consumerism-fueled love trance faster than one of those pomo Old Spice commercials. They will make casino floors look clumsily thrown together and Apple stores, cluttered. We should be exercising a bit of the precautionary principle with this technology, given that we don’t know what these sorts of spaces will do to people. How will they cause us to act? What sorts of long-term side effects will they be associated with? It would be folly to think that such expertly designed places would do only exactly as they are intended.
We can infer some future consequences by studying the places and populations that are already tightly controlled and designed using similar systems: schools, prisons, government assistance centers, and the entirety of Waziristan. These are places of high stress, low quality of living, and bloated budgets (okay, maybe not that last one when it comes to schools and government assistance centers). They are inflicted on the under-privileged but they’ll soon be mobilized to sell Beats headphones and argyle socks to the dwindling middle class. This is all pretty funny, in an extremely dark and sardonic way. Not just because of the when-it-happens-to-white-people-its-an-issue-effect, but also because we’ve been doing this to the employees of these stores for decades. From Taylorism, to secret shoppers, and quota systems; the “behind the scenes” command-and-control infrastructure for the service sector has always been equal parts draconian governance and technologically mediated surveillance. Now the customers will enjoy the same sort of control.