On a bright, bitter cold late winter day in an otherwise quiet, upscale suburban mall, the all-things-Barbie pop up shop is a beacon of unrelenting cheer. Like the eternally green plastic grass in front, it promises something better than real: a wall-to-wall Barbie world of infinite pink possibility.
For the last several months The Cube, as this cubic building hosting the pop up is known, has been ground zero for Amazon's latest foray into bricks'n'mortar (or glass'n'steel) retail: partnerships with major brands to open temporary stores. It's a very clever play on all kinds of levels. As once mighty department stores fade away, and the branded specialty departments they hosted fade along with them, Amazon has taken up the slack. These free-standing, themed stores have high mall visibility, essentially functioning as 3D billboards that likely more than pay for themselves, or at least don't cost very much. They are also brilliantly camouflaged, targeted data collection centers.
The "everything store" is fast becoming the everywhere store. What started with physical bookstores and expanded into grocery business with the takeover of Whole Foods (and now talk of starting a brand new chain from scratch), has expanded with a chain of "cashierless" convenience stores. There could be as many as 3,000 "Amazon Go" locations by 2021. The bits and atoms of commerce are merging at an astonishing rate, with e-tail and retail becoming one, big catch-all "tail."
It is a genius move, with diabolical implications. As a pioneer of online commerce, Amazon played a key role in creating the ongoing "retail apocalypse" that has seen the bankruptcy of countless companies operating thousands stores in hundreds of malls across the country. It is now a retail renter's market with beleaguered mall owners more than happy to offer month-to-month leases. Even more retail space can be had for the haggling on the ground floors of sparkly new luxury high-rises quickly sprouting up in the trendy neighborhoods of every major city.
Not much has been written about the "Amazon Presents" pop up partnerships yet. The one in my local mall near Chicago turns out to have been the first. There are now four such stores and it is probably a safe bet the number will grow considerably over the next couple of years.
While the Amazon Barbie store is not nearly as sleek and polished as the Apple store only steps away, it provides a similar brand immersion experience. Yet as wall-to-wall pink as it may be, a sales associate cheerfully informs me the well-stocked shelves represent a mere 10% of all the Barbie merchandise available on the Amazon website. If you don't see what you want in the store, they are there to help you buy it online. In the meantime, every store sale is filed away in the vast Amazon database to be combined with other data about the shopper, fodder for future up-selling and side-selling ("If you liked that, then you'll probably like this!"). Barbie 4ever! And ever...
A sales associate snaps cell phone pictures of teenagers happily posing in a Barbie-branded cardboard photo booth. "Don't forget to post to Instagram! #Barbie60xAmazon," he tells them. (It's Barbie's 60th anniversary.) That is exactly what they want to do. This isn't just a serendipitous promotion cherry atop a promotion sundae, but also a rich, new data stream: Who is posting? Who is liking the post? Who is sharing the post? With advances in facial recognition technology and affective computing, which makes it possible to identify and characterize expressions, data could also be mined on how people feel about their purchases. Whether or not Amazon or any other company are collecting these kinds of data now, the point is they could. And since data are digitally immortal, they could always be gathered later.
No question, the Barbie store is a hit. In a mall otherwise sluggish in post-Holiday torpor, it is the only place giving the Apple store a run for its money. In one aisle a father does his best to get his precocious pride-and-joy interested in Medical Doctor Barbie, but she's having none of it. Rock Star Barbie is oodles more fun. Really, how exactly do you play Medical Doctor Barbie anyhow? Meanwhile, a young boy is fascinated by the plastic Barbie dollhouse in the window, while those teenage girls are giggling all over the store. A toddler not yet three bursts into tears, overwhelmed by the sheer, wonderful, too-much of it all. Sales are made. Social media channels stoked. Data collected. A good time is had by all.
A few months ago The Cube was an Amazon Under Armour store. Soon Barbie will pack up her dollhouse and make way for the next brand to move in. Perhaps there will be an "Amazon Presents Pop Up Tour," with top brands making the rounds of Amazon shops in malls across the country. Think of all that data!
Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard Business School professor emerita, is certainly thinking about it. Her new book on what she calls Surveillance Capitalism deftly explains how the promise of a distributed digital commons morphed into an AI-turbocharged monster controlled by a handful companies, and analyzes the implications of the commoditization of personal data.
Twenty years ago Google Search was a shiny new thing. Google — with its minimalist, ad-free website, candy-color logo and refreshingly reassuring code of conduct that specified, "Don't be evil" (removed in 2018) — embodied the future in all the best ways. For the first time in history anyone, anywhere (provided they had an internet connection) could learn about anything just by typing in a few keywords. The world was now everyone's oyster, the universe at everyone's fingertips. It was delightful, almost magical. Google made the world bigger (Look at how much you can know!) and smaller (We are all connected!).
There was also a heady sense of solidarity that users and the company together were building this dazzling future: search data played a vital role in making the search engine better. Any "data exhaust" — data that could be used for other purposes — would be used to benefit the world at large. For example "Flu Tracker," was designed to use behavioral data (e.g, a sudden increase in the purchase of pain relievers at pharmacies) to make the world a healthier, happier, more equitable place. It was all good.
Yet as early as 2001 in the wake of the dot-bomb bust, notes Zuboff, investor pressures on the then startup tipped the balance and Google began to mine user data to build an advertising business. They were sitting on a market research jackpot: behavioral data that could be sourced and applied at the level of the individual and scaled infinitely. For the first time in history, the content and placement of an ad could be tailored to a specific person. "Data exhaust" was no longer a quirky artifact but rather the raw material for valuable "prediction products."
Explains Zuboff, the many variants of capitalism have historically emerged from the commoditization of ideas previously outside the boundaries of the market. Work was transformed into "labor" with fixed values. Land — natural capital — became "real estate." Mass production drove "industrialization." And now behavioral data had commoditized as "surveillance." Our thoughts, desires, relationships, purchases, travels, health, social media profiles and even our genetic make-up can be diced, sliced, combined, recombined and packaged for sale. Through affective computing (also known as "emotional AI") even the subtlest of facial expressions recorded in a photo or vidoe, or the timbre of a voice in a recording, can be reduced to a computation: another data set available to anyone, or any company, with the capital to buy it.
The point is not whether these data can be used for good. They can (see MIT Media Lab's Affective Computing Group). It is their commodification that raises concern. Likewise, the issue is not with a single data set, but with the combination of data sets from which all kinds of inferences can be made. With a nod to the film Ghostbusters, it is the crossing of streams (of data) that can be bad.
Digital information is profoundly vulnerable to bias and manipulation. In 2011 activist Eli Pariser raised the alarm about "filter bubbles" in a TED talk that has racked up nearly 4.5 million views. Pariser stumbled across the disturbing, if perhaps unintentional, consequences of algorithms designed to anticipate the wants and needs of individual users. What results is a kind of binary determinism where past choices determine future options. Pariser discovered that two people submitting identical Google search queries could receive wildly different results depending entirely on their search histories. These skewed results could in turn reinforce biases and deepen divisions between groups — for example Democrats and Republicans.
The entire purpose of a prediction product is to influence future behaviors. Improved data analytics and AI have taken most of the guesswork out of market research, creating increasing precise and powerful tools to sell anything, including political dogma (see Cambridge Analytica). With methodical precision, we are being trained to buy this rather than that, rewarded for going here and not there, cultivated to behave this way instead of that way. In an unprecedented process of unnatural selection, we are being domesticated by data — as individuals and also as populations.
When private data no longer belong to the individual but become a commodity available to the highest bidder, the stage is set for an existential battle not only to preserve personal sovereignty, says Zuboff, but also democracy itself.
The theft of seemingly meaningless information—death by a gajillion bytes—is intentionally innocuous and difficult to pinpoint. As a matter of routine we sign away privacy rights in terms-of-service agreements designed to be incomprehensible, written in what is for most a foreign language of dense legalese. It is a choice that is effectively no choice. If you want to use x, y or z software or service, you have to click "ok."
"...Analyses of the Nest thermostat now show that any vigilant consumer who's got one needs to review a minimum of 1,000 privacy contracts because Nest is a hub for all these smart devices, each one syphons your data to third parties and third parties and third parties in infinite regress. So this is an economic logic that, like a parasite, glommed onto the digital milieu and hijacked it..."
That smart home doesn't look so smart any more, does it?
There's more. There is always more... A few weeks ago Google, which owns Nest — which also makes smart doorbells and home security systems — came clean that it "forgot" to include information in the technical specs that the security system included a built-in microphone. A few months ago a group called Black Hat USA demonstrated just how easily the thermostat could be hacked.
As creepy as living in a home riddled with spy-ppliances may be, there are endless tales of personal data being harvested at every turn. The latest, a story that broke in the Wall Street Journal, exposed phone apps auto-sending "sensitive personal data" to Facebook without users' knowledge — even if a user didn't have a Facebook account.
This is all against backdrop of out and out data theft, with has become so routine and so impossible for an individual to do much about that it barely makes the headlines any more.
But the deepest, darkest, scariest part of the surveillance rabbit hole is how easily digital data can be faked. Pictures, videos and voices can now be manipulated with ease by almost anyone. What happens when a digital dossier is a chimera, an indistinguishable mix of real you and fictional, virtual you?
And yet back up top in the daylight of a winter's afternoon, the Barbie store is so much fun! Twenty years ago, the big retail story was Bricks-versus-Clicks: how stores need to up their game on "experience" to counter the ease of online shopping. Full disclosure: I wrote one those stories as a cover for BusinessWeek.
The narrative then shifted to Bricks-and-Clicks, with stores scrambling to catch up with Amazon, who enjoyed a massive lead in the channel and ever-deepening pockets to increase said lead (building warehouses, improving logistics, developing cloud services). Amazon also was free of the legacy financial commitments with which the traditional retailers were saddled.
The third and latest chapter, Clicks-invade-Bricks, turns out to have a surprise kicker. The digital hasn't simply taken over the physical, but fundamentally changed it. Bits permeate atoms. A store still exists to sell things to customers, but also to gather data, which then become a product that in turn can be used sell more, or to be sold itself. Data swirl around everything we do, everywhere we go.
We may not be living in The Matrix, but we are certainly in one.
THE COMING BORG
At the other end of the mall in a Lord & Taylor that was shuttered last year as part of the veteran department store's continuing decline, I wandered into another pop up. Mass VR is a virtual reality immersion space, one of dozens of such spaces that have opened over the last couple of years all over the world offering gamers a "free roaming" VR experience. Instead of being stuck in a chair in front of a screen, or wearing a VR headset tethered by cord to a computer, gamers can now step into a virtual world and play a game in the game. Just strap on an electronics-stuffed backpack, stare at a screen inside a headset and run around merrily dispatching enemies with virtual lasers while digitally dressed as a space(force?) soldier. Pew pew! Pew pew!
Mass VR is designed to get the heart pumping with players logging roughly two miles during the course of a game. That's two miles walking mostly in circles on a dingy gray department store carpet that's been covered in a web of black tape to enhance cyber sight lines. That said, the incidental exercise is in part what motivated CEO Chris Lai, the father of three boys, to open Mass VR. He frames free roam gaming as way to fight childhood obesity by getting gamer kids out of their chairs and moving. Young, mostly male gamers have been known to rack up 10,000 hours of play by the time they're 21, so moving at all helps the cause.
Although studies have shown that video games can improve hand-eye coordination and other cognitive functions, less in known about long term social and emotional impacts. Yet such intense and prolonged exposure to algorithmically orchestrated fantasies designed to reward winners for vanquishing their enemies and penalize losers with death must in some way be rewiring their malleable, adolescent brains. They, too, are being trained by data — and they can't seem to get enough of it.
"E-sports," which turns gaming into a spectator sport, has exploded in popularity over the last five years. The stats are stunning: a billion dollar business with a global audience expected to hit 345 million this year. A tournament can fill a stadium with 100,000+, mostly young, male fans, with tens of millions more following online. Lai sees enormous potential for adding free roaming VR to the mix.
"For kids our ordinary world seems very boring compared to the fastastical world they have at their fingertips," notes Lai in a recent TEDx talk. That may be accurate but it is also quite sobering. What does the future look like for a generation that prefers virtual worlds to the real one?
These are still early days and the truth is that if these games weren't all theme and variation on cowboy shoot-'em-ups, but included more VR adventure experiences — snorkeling through a coral reef, climbing a mountain, a voyage through the Milky Way, or a quick trip to Hogwarts — I would be the first in line, ready to have my mind blown even if it meant tinkering with my cerebral cortex and, of course, harvesting my data: heart rate, sweat rate, grins, smiles, screams, laughter.
For the shoot-'em-up gamers the information trove includes data on how effective they are at killing, and also how often they are killed. Mix that into a data blender with credit scores, social media profiles, political affiliations and personal networks and bit by bit all the facets of their lives become part of a greater data collective.
Will they be assimilated? Will they become Borg?
• Recode / Decode's Kara Swisher Interviews Shoshana Zuboff (podcast)
• The Intercept's Naomi Klein Interviews Shoshana Zuboff (video below)
• Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They’re Not Keeping It Secret | New York Times
• Green paradise or data-stealing dystopia? Toronto smart city sparks debate | Thomson Reuters Foundation
• An exposed database tracked whether 1.8 million Chinese women were “breed ready” | The Verge
• Facebook Lawsuit Details How Alleged Hackers Used Fun Quizzes to Steal User Data | Fortune
• Google knows where you live, work and your ‘secret interests’, new ‘Shadow Profile’ report says | news.com.au
• On Disability and on Facebook? Uncle Sam Wants to Watch What You Post | New York Times
• After Public Outcry, a Rewritten Photo Policy for Hudson Yards’ ‘Vessel’ | Bloomberg