The Disappointing 2010s… Because Ads

I’ve spent the past few days considering what changed from 2010 and now. Of course, there are the obvious things like better cameras in mobile phones leading to an explosion of user content.  In my life specifically this has led to more YouTube content and the ability for me to even create and post my own YouTube content. And now I primarily watch YouTube content. This of course is aided by cord cutting, which we did in 2012. We cut event TV, evening news, and cable news out of our life and we’ve been better for it. Apart from that, nothing much has changed. We’re still driving the same cars, using the same printer, we only upgraded our computers once, and we still don’t have any kind of personal assistant or Internet of Things device in our house.

The Internet of Things is the most disappointing thing of all. I was excited all the way back in 2005 when we went to CES and learned about Zigbee standards. We dreamed of having a fully networked house that would adapt to our needs. Our lights would come on when they needed to, my fridge would generate a basic grocery list, my fridge would give me meal suggestions based upon what’s in my fridge, music devices would know what I wanted to hear and suggest new music to me based on my habits, and I’d basically have a second brain to offload mundane tasks  to. My data was supposed to be for me and stored within the confines of my personal network. But instead, what should be mine was sold and shared with all manner of unknown entities to sell to advertisers and to be used by state actors to influence my political leanings. Instead of a recommendation engine that deepened my gardening knowledge, YouTube led me to end-of-the-world gun-nut preppers. Instead of advertisements for cheese and ice cream, Twitter puts random content on my feed that is not relevant to me like the duration on iPhone batteries and eggs (which I’m allergic to). I’m afraid to get a connected TV and appliances because they will all be spying on me, and I don’t dare go near a Facebook associated website or service because Facebook is in essence malware.

Unfortunately, a lot of this is our fault because as consumers we want everything free, so companies leapt at selling ads space on devices to provide revenues. But then something happened, and the consumers and content creators shifted from being the customers to being the products. And since then, energy has been spent creating algorithms to mine consumer data and to sell advertising space rather than making a better customer experience. And now multi-billion dollar, too-big-to-fail companies are completely dependent on serving ads and selling our data to anyone who will pay for it.

What is the right balance of privacy and community? I’m not opposed to providing anonymized data for recommendation engines or to help companies improve products and experiences.  I am also not opposed to providing personal information to get personalized recommendations. My problem is why does my personal identifying information need to leave the confines of my house and why do I receive advertisements I haven’t “pulled”. For instance, when I’m doing research to decide which mobile phone to buy is the proper time to show me an iPhone battery advertisement. Apple doesn’t have to know this specific information about me or my search, but I feel comfortable letting Apple know that someone, not me specifically, clicked to find out more information.

I’ve thought about a disruption to Facebook that offered similar features with privacy and then it occurred to me that I have that now with my family and friends via media rich text messaging and groups. As for a kitchen assistant, we use our iPad to display recipes, monitor cooking via Bluetooth thermometers and timers, and to stream music and videos to our stereo and TV. I keep a running shopping list on my mobile phone. As for the connected home, we have certain lights timers and movement sensors. We’ve programmed our heater/AC as well as our outdoor sprinkle system. Are these workarounds? Or is this how it should be done? Of course, I would like to have weather responsive outdoor sprinklers, but am I doing fine without them? I’d say yes. Did I expect to be doing things the same way I did in 2010 or before? No.

In the 2020’s I hope to see a radical shift towards companies providing truly personal experiences for customers. I’d like to have a personal assistant that isn’t sharing my data with the manufacturer’s partners or governments.  I don’t want to fear that my devices are spying on me or are being used as part of a botnet. Most importantly, I don’t want to be bombarded with advertisements. When I look back to the year 2020, I want to be doing some things differently. I want my house and garden to be semi-automated with statistics for me that I can either choose to share or keep to myself. I want to be able to track my life in the same manner. I want my private personal life assistant as was promised to me from sci-fi like Star Trek and those many aspirational corporate videos I sat through at meetings and conferences.