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Facial Recognition, Situated Technologies and the Slippery Privacy Slope

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A fascinating week of exploration for me. Key topics: facial recognition, situated technologies and the slippery privacy slope. Thinking about the future, again, is always about trajectories, convergences and the social, economic and cultural implications thereof. So here are three reflections and interesting stuff to check out and think about:

1. Facial Recognition: Immersive Labs.

Thanks to Immersive Labs’ CEO Jason Sosa for putting me and a couple of my colleagues together with COO Jill Miller for a product demo of their CARA adaptive facial detection application. The CARA system basically makes digital display screens in public spaces more intelligent and thus targeted by employing cameras and Immersive’s facial detection and content delivery technology. Through this tech, digital displays and billboards are able to detect who is looking at a display, whether they’re male or female, old or young; how long they look at the display; and presumably how engaged they are in the content of the display. The goal, of course, is first to be able to track, analyze and profile viewers of a specific display in a specific place, then to be able to deliver targeted content/advertising to that display, in order to better connect with viewers and achieve communication objectives.

The secret sauce here involves sophisticated algorithms that detect facial topography and accurately profile faces demographically. It’s amazing stuff that could be coming soon to every device with a camera and a display (tablets, phones, etc.); it will of course capture data that can be housed, analyzed and connected to other data. Right now, it’s fairly simple, but projecting it forward, facial recognition could connect people in real space with their virtual space activities, using big data analytics to profile and target further. It could also become sophisticated enough to note emotional nuances in faces and target messages based on those nuances. As a professional marketer working with targeted display, the opportunities here are intriguing to me short-term, but the way the twin technologies of facial recognition and intelligent display overlap with big data and the “internet of things,” that’s extremely interesting. The implications of the big data-enhanced internet of things are so fundamental as to literally change our world, and provide quite a few challenges, and I probably need to do a separate blog post on that convergence alone. Thanks again Jason and Jill, awesome stuff!

2. Situated Technologies

Great series of thought pieces here from the Center for Virtual Architecture, The Institute for Distributed Creativity (iDC), and the Architectural League of New York. These .pdf pamphlets take a look at some of the trends, issues and implications of a variety of technological and cultural areas. The most recent piece, Modulated Cities: Networked Spaces, Reconstituted Subjects, is a point and counterpoint between Helen Nissenbaum, an NYU professor of media, and Kazys Varnelis, a Columbia professor of “networked architecture.” As one might guess, the content here is a bit academic, so if you haven’t read cultural theorists like Lyotard, Habermas or Deleuze, you might miss some of the references. But it’s pretty up to date and accessible.

Anyway, key points for me here: 1) physical space (architecture and city planning) is becoming more and more intelligent and networked; 2) the physical world is beginning to model itself on the digital world (i.e, the relative dominance of the metaphors has reversed); and 3) there are tremendous social implications for both online and offline privacy, as the physical world becomes more digital, tech and data gets connected and integrated and values and social attitudes cultivated in the digital world are carried over into the material world.

Our built environment is trending toward “situated technology:” smart, networked, data-enabled space in which humans are potentially always already public, plugged-in, targeted and communicating, mediated by a screen or not. It’s also possible that it all (every thing) might converge into one network, which raises issues of power, access and control that we haven’t fully addressed yet as a species: if the world is a network of smart technology, all on one platform, who is the admin?

3. The Slippery Privacy Slope

Finally, in my undergraduate-level Strategic Management course this week, I took students through a facilitated strategic analysis of Yahoo! Yahoo! has been in the business press quite a bit because of its new CEO, Marissa Mayer. After we looked at Yahoo!’s business model, the business environment, competition, etc., the Yahoo! discussion, among my students anyway, really came down to: advertising, content, big data, and how Yahoo! leverages these assets. I raised the issue of privacy as an ethical cross-check to tempting potential uses of consumer data, but interestingly, the class had little concern about the company’s future use of data.

That’s right, even as consumers, they were not very concerned about threats to their privacy. The class’ attitude was, essentially: “Well, as soon as you get on the internet, you know you’re giving up your data.”

Through the lines, really, what I read from the class discussion was the collapse of data, permission and privacy, which Nissenbaum and Varnelis actually discuss in the piece I refer to in #2 above. The surrender of data is increasingly equated with the surrender of all privacy (thus, the slippery slope). It’s a capitulation that seems somewhat shocking — but many consumers see it as the exchange that in many ways it is. Consumers have more or less consciously traded their privacy for the benefits of technology, such as the free Facebook account.

Now, this one group of students is by no means a representative sample of the general population. Regardless, based on other casual data points, it seems we may be slipping down the privacy slope, and the old boundaries are likely to be pushed in the next year or two. As another example, this afternoon, I was online and saw ads on a news site that turned out to be targeted to me (via LinkedIn advertising) based on information in my LinkedIn profile. Hmmm.

We live in very interesting times, right?

Author: Eric Kingsbury

Technology Futurism Creative Marketing Strategy Art Music Writing Thinking Ideas

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