Technology ideas in the real world – the human factor

I love gadgets, and I love new technology. You see something on Star Trek or one of the other sci-fi programmes and then a few years later you see it in the real world because the designers watch the same programs and you think ‘great, look forward to using that’. I’ve just been watching an excellent video of a talk by Luke Wroblewski, primarily about the new techniques of “mobile first” design and as tends to happen with these things I got sucked in, listening to all the great ideas that he was discussing for the things you can do with a mobile interface. All the services that you can offer if you know where people are and which direction they’re pointing in and how they’ve orientated their phone, etc. and you think as a teenager, you think how wonderful the new world’s gonna be. And with my web design and SEO hat on I’m also sometimes thinking about how it might work for some of my clients.

Then the cynicism kicks in, the world-weary experience; I stop and think ‘hang on, you know what’s going to happen to all this’. The answer of course is that it’ll be commercialised to death, the data will be taken from whatever it happens to be that you’re doing and someone will build a profile of you and then they’ll sell advertising to you. Did you point your camera phone at a book on history, a QR code for an Italian restaurant, a picture of a landmark? Then what’ll happen is the next time you go to an online bookstore you’ll see loads of ads for history books, on a site related to food you’ll see adverts for Italian restaurants or maybe, god forbid, when you pass an Italian restaurant they’ll send you the menu whether you wanted it or not, and the next time you go to a travel site or airline site you’ll be shown offers to take you to that landmark in whatever country it is.

Because unfortunately the real world that we live in isn’t like Star Trek, where money is obsolete (except for Ferengies!) and altruism is a way of life. Our world is all about greed and the fast buck, and there’s no such thing as a free lunch because every service that you’re offered comes with a catch and it seems that these days the entire western economy revolves not around creating real wealth but around advertising, and those involved in advertising will do anything to find out how they can sell more goods and services to you, and to do that they want to know everything about you.

So while I love all these new ideas, my middle-aged experience tells me that all too often the new world won’t be quite as great as we might hope. So to any young people reading this, (and it sometimes feels like most of the people in this industry are all younger than me these days!), yes, keep your delight in new things, keep imagining new ideas, but watch very carefully how they’re being used and think very hard about whether you should really give up your privacy for the latest shiny gadget or cool service. History, as opposed to sci-fi, tells us that there will always be someone who will mis-use your data, misinterpret your actions, seek to profit from your actions, and discriminate against you for a wide variety of seemingly stupid reasons.

This might seem a strange blog post on an SEO and web-related site, but it was inspired by precisely that sort of technology and marketing, and it does no harm to remember that the technology doesn’t exist in isolation and that it is always controlled by people with an agenda. And those people aren’t always as nice as you and me or Jean-Luc Picard.

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