Our 16-year-old Amana refrigerator is starting to show its age, and we’ve recently started to think about all the options for replacing it. So much has changed in home appliance technology, and I’m the most intrigued by this “smart” model from LG with a networked, touch screen computer that helps manage the family food and grocery comportment.
Some academics have begun to argue that the primary commodity of commercial media has shifted from mass audience attention to individual and inferential data culled from one’s online identity and activity. This “net” of personal data collection and analysis now extends from the desktop to the smartphone to the growing realm of networked devices we are becoming increasingly reliant on. Even your fancy new Internet-connected, wifi-enabled refrigerator can generate data that can be monetized.
Mass media advertising has always been low in efficiency, with the main bargain skewed in favor of the audience through free entertainment and information product. Today, the terms of this bargain are being rewritten. Instead of broadcast entertainment, news and information (delivered at scale and driven to a certain level of quality by competing for audience attention and advertising revenue), we find an emerging ecosystem of social media applications and devices that are increasingly defining a new social contract. Taken together these technologies comprise a new commercial medium that becomes more valuable to advertisers as we use it. Beyond monetizing human attention, the medium seeks to monetize total human involvement: Attention + Activity + Identity (what you see, what you do and who you are).
Recently, while doing some media theory research for the current course I’m teaching, I stumbled across a fascinating online video of Marshall McLuhan giving a talk in 1974. Such discoveries are often little treasures of prescience, and this one is no exception, as he somehow reaches out of the past to describe media effects being experienced in this present moment.
Another strange effect of this electric environment is the total absence of secrecy. No form of secrecy is possible at electric speed. At electric speed everything becomes X-Ray. – Marshall McLuhan
Next time you look in the refrigerator, your refrigerator may also be looking back at you and providing a valuable data stream that is sold to commercial interests. Your lengthy and often unread end user agreement may even specify that all this data is generated anonymously, and is, therefore, benign. Yet, how important is it that some unseen and unknown commercial entity doesn’t know your specific name or even your SSN if they do know where you live; what you like to eat; the age and weight of you, your spouse and your children; what you all like to do online; what you watch on TV; where you travel in your car; and ultimately every byte of behavior and preference data a human being can generate each day? What’s in a name when the rest of you is worth so much more money?