The Ambient Economy

Access to information is addictive. The moment we have more of it – and more of it available at opportune times – the more we crave. I learned this first-hand when I began wearing a Pebble smartwatch in earnest. While I’ve long rejected the idea that a smartwatch is a valuable addition to the infonaut’s arsenal, I now realize that being able to see, at a glance, who is calling, texting, or emailing is something that changes nearly everything. We are entering an era of ambient information, an era that engulfs us in snippets of data culled from the riot of information around us. And this era, as evidenced by the advent of Google Glass and “hands-free” user experiences on phones, is fast approaching the commonplace.

In short, something big is about to happen and our attention is about to me monetized.

Think about what I learn from my smartwatch or the notifications on my phone. Right now I get emails, messages, and the like. But if hundreds of startups (and probably Apple, Google, and Amazon) have their way, recommendations and enticements may soon be popping up on our devices. In a Starbucks? Apple’s Beacon system should be able to notify us what song is playing and whether the Pumpkin Spice latte is back. In a clothing store? A company called Estimote can watch you try on an item and then remind you that you liked it a few days later – and even offer a quick discount.

If there has been any upside to the Internet of Things, it’s that very smart, very connected devices now cost pennies. Furthermore, the computing power needed to pick you out of a crowd is now trivial, especially given foot traffic in the average store. You will soon be in a maze of invisible trip wires, all trying to get you to buy something.

The Pebble is successful because it is forgettable. I can strap it on and wear it for a good seven days without a charge and when it informs me that something is up – that I have a text or an email or a call – it does so in a discreet manner. I can only imagine what it would look like if it were trying to get me buy a Subway sandwich for 50 cents off or convince me to get some new jeans at the Gap, but if those companies are smart they’ll partner with some source of ambient information broadcast. A buzz here or there would nudge me into Chipotle for some beans or into Joe’s Pizza for a slice. A nudge in the drug store will encourage me to pick up some condoms and corn remover (“Try Trojan-brand condoms/corn remover kits. 50 cents off today!”). A friend’s testimonial can pop up when I visit a house of ill repute and/or a car dealership. You get the idea.

This concept gets increasingly scary when you look at a smarter device like Google Glass. A section of NPR’s On The Media talked a bit about the problem of selective GPS. In an interview, geographer Jim Thatcher notes that the scariest part of getting directions from a faceless corporation is what bias that corporation can inject into your walk. While Google probably won’t realize you’re going out for lunch and lead you towards a preferred advertiser with your Glass anytime soon, there’s definitely the possibility of that happening. Likewise the same tools that can avoid obstacles can force you to face them head-on. Imagine a parent being led, again and again, past a McDonald’s because of a feedback loop embedded in the program and you’ll see what I mean.

This becomes more dangerous when we trust our devices to lead us and inform us with less oversight. Notifications on a phone are one thing; notifications in our eyes are another. My watch buzzing to get my attention gives me a valuable bit of information, but it can also exhaust my attention. They also add bias. I’ve noticed more and more restaurants fail to appear on my favorite local app, Yelp. Whether this is because Yelp needs to monetize or because it refuses to show me dumps is immaterial – the fact that it controls what I see and can expect to see is frightening.

Ambient information is a powerful tool. It helps us make decisions with an accuracy heretofore unavailable to our puny minds. More than anything it offloads cognition and decision-making onto a device that rests unobtrusively just out of sight. Like the ever-present servant, it whispers “Remember, user, thou art really close to some nice barbecue.” Who benefits from this information is the real question.

[Image via woodleywonderworks on Flickr]