Skynet vs Mad Max: Battle For The Future
19th March 12
Posted in sxsw
Thanks to everyone who came to our talk at SXSWi last week. For anyone interested, you can find our slides and our speech below (we talk fast, so there’s plenty of it!) and please check out #sxbattle on Twitter to follow the commentary on the day. As the hashtag suggests, we pitched the benefits of two alternate futures as a battle, along the way inviting the audience to vote for the one they thought most likely to become a reality. We had a lot of fun doing it, thanks again to everyone who joined us.
Let’s start by stating the obvious, a disclaimer if you will.
We’re not really here to talk about Skynet and Mad Max. They’re both works of fiction, each film set after an apocalyptic event. We thought about trying to re-title this talk – “how an apocalypse might affect your business…” but we settled for this disclaimer instead.
They’re just an analogy. One we’d like to use to tell a story. Everyone in this room is a storyteller, it’s what we do. We tell stories to effect results. Here, it’s fair to say, both films paint insanely dystopian, radically different visions of the future, yet they are also classic narratives. Control vs chaos. A totalitarian state vs total anarchy. A closed network vs an open network.
We’d go further and say they represent two takes on the oldest story on the planet – in that sense, they feel practically biblical. Go with us on this..
In the left corner, we have Skynet. An omnipotent non-human entity that becomes so powerful and self-aware it decides that mankind needs to be wiped out – becoming a vengeful and fearsome divinity in the process – this is Noah and the Flood, Skynet-style. Skynet is an atheist’s version of an Old Testament God. Terrifying, omniscient and merciless.
Meanwhile, in the right corner, we have the Mad Max films. With their lack of any moral or cultural direction, they show a society that’s lost its way; the perpetrators cast out and forced to scavenge for themselves in a lawless, nameless, free, open, naked state. No, it’s not the Garden of Eden, it’s the Thunderdome.
Speculative scenarios of authoritarian dictatorships, oligarchical or tech-controlled fascism have been depicted consistently in fiction and film through the decades – Terminator is just one – think 1984, Brave New World, Metropolis, Blade Runner, Gattaca, Minority Report, 2001 Space Odyssey, Matrix, Ghost in the shell, Wall-E to name a few.
And the alternative, anarchic states also get a regular airing: the uncontrolled, ‘free’, libertarian states – degraded, often dirty, violent and sexually explicit – think A Clockwork Orange, Battle Royale, Akira, Children of Men, Brazil, Delicatessen, Escape from LA, 12 Monkeys.
So, a conversation about religious symbolism, literature and film may seem to transgress the boundaries of a talk in SXSWi’s ‘branding and marketing’ category… but it’s kind of important to frame this discussion as an exercise in classic storytelling. We enjoy these cliched, dystopian dramas, despite the fact that real life is so often rather more MOR. Indeed, storytellers use extreme narratives like these to help us define the parameters of society: they’re not actual signposts to the future, they’re more like guard rails. In the real world, chaos is not that popular, neither is slavery – but very few of us don’t like to know where the boundaries lie.
And it struck us there were lots of parallels here with the directions technology could take us. And, given the impact technology is having, both on our daily lives and on the fortunes of brands, we thought we might learn something by examining its extremes.
So just as we’re describing a sliding scale between:
These days it’s also about:
We’re going to shift gears now. Take a quick look at the impact technology pushed to two different extremes could have. And we’ve got three lenses to look through as we go: Identity, Humanity and Reality. Yes, these are three *giant* topics which we undoubtedly won’t do justice to, but we’re going to give it a go.
And, just for fun, we’re going to start each section by being cheerleaders for Skynet, the closed, visionary power and then we’ll switch and flag wave for Mad Max, aka open source genius. We reserve the right throughout to be insanely upbeat and cynical in equal measure. Then we’ll come back to some rather more measured conclusions at the end.
Along the way, we want YOU to help us decide whether technology is more likely to drive us towards an authoritarian state or towards an anarchic diaspora; and which of those might be, er, preferable. And we have a properly hacky iPhone-enabled voting platform for you to tell us what you think. Please vote here: http://xd67.com/sxsw.
Let’s go: starting with the future of identity, authentication and trust.
The future that devotees of Skynet (depicted in bold from here on) would paint for you is one as envisaged by technologists, where the convergence of devices, operating platforms and processing speeds allows huge data to immerse us. For our lives to be silently augmented and each detail, predicted, analysed or recorded for our benefit without us needing to worry. Very similar in fact to onboard computers in high-end cars. All you need to do is drive, and very soon you won’t even need to do this. The environment is perfectly managed for you.
For fans of this future, the alternative is the home of competition and open platforms fighting for your interest. This is a messy ugly and unsanitary future. And you would do well to vote against it.
In our perfect seamless future – identity has evolved. Identity is a singular function at a global level. You are who you are because you can sign in.
In this converged, well-managed world, this works brilliantly because it is a unified layer that sits across all other functions. The *company* guarantees your identity, much like a credit card company does today, it watches your logins, it probably sells certain user information, it looks for fraudulent activity, it manages a personal relationship with you to ensure your login remains secure and it works with every interface you come across.
It makes you authentic.
And when you are authentic you can do anything. It means if you have credit you can buy stuff by simply being logged in, it means you can get visas and travel, it means you can interact online and offline as the same entity – you receive offers and deals in real-time at point of sale or at point of search. All that stuff that everyone here in SXSW is offering you if you sign up for their service – all of that functionality – no login. No phone. Just you.
My authenticity combined with my geo-location can pay for cabs, cokes and coffees. I don’t need to carry cards or a phone, I can create preferences which set the amount I can spend with an authentic location – it’s very similar to the way my cafe extends me credit, or cookies suggest news. Imagine cookies for reality. Wherever you go they understand your preferences, your club-card status and preferred music and mood-lighting. And it will understand fraud. “hey, Jeremy never walks that way to work – let’s ping him!”
Forget the logistical technicalities, that’s just a challenge to overcome, whether biometric, visual or logic-based – your guaranteed identity means that theft is impossible, reducing muggings and burglaries, finance is controlled by the cloud, transforming foreign exchange, controlling credit and fraud, micro-payments become normalised and instantaneous. One can “blink” (or “wink”) a $10 dollar tip. Anonymous purchases can be done by “cash transactions” which have a nofollow tag that captures no data about the exchange whatsoever.
In this authentic state you have a “signed in” default which ensures your virtual data is also synched and cross-referenced, your time is organised, maps planned, searches pre-empted, music scheduled, flights arranged, offers accepted, bills paid, entertainment choices suggested across each media device in your daily life. Your virtual and non-virtual worlds interact seamlessly – it is very much like having a PA that doesn’t sleep and isn’t distractingly good looking.
When you wake up the world ‘just works’ around you.
And brands will just work around you also.
In order for brands to operate they need to offer a fair exchange for data, at the moment that means buy the ad space in the users eyeline, pay for content with intrusive media, or offer something. Take Walls’ smile-activated ice cream vending machine as a recent example of how that ‘exchange’ already operates. Increasingly brands will work within the parameters of user-first marketing – making sure whatever you want to tell your story around is providing something the user wants: entertainment, reward, opportunity, excitement, peace and quiet.
It will be a world of marketing that is personalised to your needs and is desired by the user. We see the start of this already – YouTube’s click through ad format – where, if you don’t like the ad – you just skip it. And if you preference is to block all ads, probably meaning that you have paid to block all ads, then why shouldn’t you live in an ad free world?
So, that’s all very well, but do we really want to be yoked to technology that sounds like it manipulates us, more than we control it? To a fan of the open web, the future as just described sounds like a one size fits all solution. “Opt the f*** in, or f*** the f*** off”, as Malcolm Tucker (fictional political spin doctor in The Thick Of It) might put it.
But seriously, no-one can exist outside this system, therefore radical or minority interests can be marginalised, movements tracked and freedom of speech endangered. From the beginning of time we’ve fought to free ourselves from subjugation and control. What Skynet would dismiss as uncontrolled anarchy, the rest of us on this planet call Freedom.
And what could be more appropriate, standing here in the USA today. As speakers, we may be British, but we like Freedom too. With fries on the side.
Freedom of speech, the right to free assembly, freedom of belief, freedom of choice. This stuff dates back centuries and is enshrined in the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you name it.
This may seem a bit dramatic – but our failure to protect choice, consumer choice, and the structures of freedom that are hard-wired in to the origin myths of the world wide web – would be a matter of scandal.
Instead, we’re now going to paint a picture of a future defined by a Mad Max-style, open web world. Not dissimilar from our own on the surface, a world where companies and brands fight for your attention, they scrap for each dollar. This not only drives the economy forward, it drives technological development itself.
Around every corner is a garage start up with a epoch-marking technological development, open-sourced, forked, crowd-funded.. The speed with which technology moves can only be hindered by lumbering closed garden solutions, hoovering up the data and credit of a global market eager for innovation.
So let’s start with an undeniable advantage of the open web: the revival of community and individualism. The markets would like the outliers to be few, the majority in their graphs to be a 99% majority. Converged systems push us towards that, towards a closed, blinkered understanding of our world.
In the open, by contrast, multiple sign-ins to different online communities will work across all forms of media and the web. Usually at this point walled garden devotees panic about proving identity, talk of anonymous trolls and the like. And yet… identity is not about a name, any more than a brand is just a logo.
The nym wars last year set out to prove that the Internet allows for individuals to live truly fractured multi-faceted, multi-personalities and that this is fine. Locking people into the ‘true’ identity provided by their social security number is an old world relic that only an open web can truly challenge. As 4chan’s Christopher Poole says: “There is not one you.”
In fact, as he puts rather beautifully, “People aren’t mirrors that display one reflection, they’re multi-faceted like diamonds.”
Sure, with open access, signing in shares a lot of data meaning a huge level of trust is required by the community, funnily enough just as things are in real life. Newbies are noticed and watched, curtains twitch. If they bring value, they are accepted. Behave badly and they get hounded out of town. Society usually works things out. The human web will be increasingly essential in creating non-corporate forms of trusted identity through community – peer review, networks of individuals vouching for each other like PageRank. Imagine Quora and Wikipedia, but faster, better, harder, stronger.
So what role for business and brands here?
In a digital world with a universally open approach when you find something you want to own, everyone in the world bids for you to buy their version. Streams of data such as face recognition data are shared as a matter of public record to prevent organisations exploiting it – so where cameras recognise you, there is an open auction to present advertising. That advertising may appear on media surfaces like billboards, on your clothing or just in your eyeline, but if it’s not to be immediately blocked, it has to be user-focused – perhaps you choose to belong to an ad-subsidised authentication service, or your subscriptions to media providers allow you to avoid advertising at a price.http://www.vimeo.com/8569187
While that may make going online sound like the virtual equivalent of walking into a Morrocan bazaar (if you’ve not seen it, check out Keeichi Matsuda’s video above showing a hyper-augmented city for a flavour of how that may feel), in an open web world it is always possible to add a further digital middleman – there is infinite space for them.
PayPal and Wallet are already examples of this, and in a truly ‘Mad Max’ future predicated on free and open access, new developers would be able to build on that to make the experience of using either of these products less painful – we’d wager most of us would be happy to pay a .1% surcharge if they did.
And in an open world you can still employ an intelligent adblocker to wipe away the stuff you don’t want to see – think of it as a body guard for your eyes. The ad blocker may even go a step further and replace an offending ad with something or somone you want to see instead.
Another opportunity offered by multiple or pseudonym-based sign-in is the fact that a whole host of activities can be handed off to non-human entities.
These already exist. Weavrs, for example, are bots that use web APIs to find and remix social data, effectively becoming the digital alter egos or research agents of their creators. They can follow the topics you want found, you can program them with your preferences and personality, then drop one into a city you’re thinking of moving to.. see which quarter you should live in.
And then we’ve got socibots like this one from India, that updates your various social feeds (seamless sharing); or imagine death bots that serve social notices for the ultimate out of office correspondence.
Either way, it’s a perk or a quirk of the open web that a deregulated system has more solutions to more problems and evolves faster and in more directions than a closed system. Messier, maybe, but in this future we move forward faster and more freely. This is how progress happens.
We’re no scientists, but it’s impossible to ignore technology’s potential impact on humanity and the human body. Again, we begin with the Skynet camp perspective.. and a simple assertion that, without a central utility coordinating the multiple data feeds, things simply don’t work. In the anarchic, open Mad Max world, you the user have to do all the work.
This is a topic well covered by science fiction and more so by science fact – we’ve all seen the stories of how we will live to 1000, have bionic limbs, digital eyes, home-grown organs and recordable memories that can capture everything that you do, see or hear.
What about our own bodies? Well, – since we have discharged with keys, devices, cards, and phones – we need to resolve a few practical issues. We already have micro-thin transparent conductive materials like graphene and we can expect our tech to get smaller, lighter and faster.
We will need an embeded gps, 4G, wireless, speakers, and memory. So cochlear implants seem almost inevitable. Sensors to inform you about your environment from air quality to sun strength.
A camera is also essential. There does seem to be a surprising amount of space between the eyeball and the skull.. so we guess they’ll start there. The human body has plenty of physical capacity for light augmentation – we do it ALL the time – it’s just curious that currently it’s largely for cosmetic or ornamentation purposes.
The future of visual display seems less obvious. Will we have LEDs planted in contact lenses, actual corneal implants, heads up glasses or just a mass of lightweight wearable plastic that operates just as well. Or will projection advance to a level that we can get the quality we want without burning anyone that gets in the way?
Gaming and arts combine
Gaming in this world is reality-based, and hard to distinguish from current forms of entertainment. Narrative streams cross and the arts become increasingly immersive and interactive, game culture combined with gesture and face recognition infiltrates theatre, art, dance and old world broadcast media like television.
A good nowday version of this would be Mudlark’s Chromaroma where your movements on the London Underground are tracked as you swipe on and off, missions are undertaken, and points awarded. Isolation arts, where you log-off and sit in an unwired location to watch physical drama with no augmentation is something of a niche, a bit like poetry…
What we’ve just heard sounds like nothing short of a surveillance society. In order to know that it isn’t being used inappropriately each machine effectively spies on its users behaviour and passes back information. Access to this information is just as hackable as a machine itself – especially by government or the authority that issues it.
And talking of access to information, for a moment let’s put to one side all manner of humanitarian issues facing us today, and recognise that in future one of the most pressing issues and most valuable commodities will be access to data. Data is essential to business, and to our lives. It shouldn’t be a surprise to know that, in an open world, certain data streams will be declared to be of global interest and unownable, truly open – geo-location being one. Any business can get access to your geo-location because otherwise how are they able to provide the information that you need to navigate your environment?
What’s more, in an open web world, we can look forward to all knowledge – every bit of writing, music, photography and painting, past and present – being digitized and recorded in a machine-readable way, accessible to all. Witness an existing interface called GIL-Universal, which the Georgia State University are using to digitally catalogue their library. Think something like this, but taken a step further – an “universal library” for all data, not just books. What Kevin Kelly calls “Memorex”, in fact.
And in terms of the human augmentation (yes, bodies) we’ve talked about, surely an open source approach should be adopted here. Currently society accepts cosmetic surgery and prosthetic bionics, but once we begin to engineer our own genomes and are able to alter our athletic, artistic and academic performance .. well, that’s a whole new ball game. And if this stuff is kept accessible by all, then it strikes us that this kind of augmentation can help level society’s playing field. In fact, ‘disability’ as we know it could be vanquished in this scenario. Imagine an open API for all that’s best about humanity.
Whether you think that sounds realistic or even desirable, as Kevin Kelly (again) puts it: “For every person who says ‘Over my dead body will I or my child be engineered’, there will be someone else who says, ‘Bring on the mutants!’”
It’s going to happen at some point. When it does happen, what’s critical is that access to this is open source, not hidden inside a paid-for, walled garden.
So how would this actually work?
In an open market you can sell whatever you have to sell. The market rates are controlled by how much your personal data is worth – not a package deal that you have to accept because you are part of a network that only has centrally controlled competition. Think Pinterest meets Groupon, without a head office: You can act as a group to collectively trade access to your community in return for your carefully curated insights into vintage wine or swedish knitting patterns from the 1970’s – rather than giving up this data simply in order to use the platform (as Skynet would have you do). You can sell your data, or you can sell your time and attention to advertising, you can use your health data to purchase services or access to products or media. You decide.
Our final topic area – the future of physicality, objects, video and how we interact with the world around us.
We’ve already described the reasonably assured future where all information and entertainment ever exists in machine-readable form, available to be squirted to your devices or retina as you desire. In a world of infinite content we will rely on algorithmic selections, packaged on the fly, to our preferences. There is a totality of content (too much to ever consume) so the company makes some selections for you and gives you programmed choices across a limited number of channels for you to adapt and personalise until they always show you what you want.
In fact we may even subscribe to reality – as Jamais Cascio suggests – when augmented lenses are as essential as a mobile phone, even non-virtual visual content becomes exchangeable – it is perfectly possible to imagine a future where what you see is the reality that you have paid to see. Either at subscription level, or you on an advertising-led model, or using free-to-air augmentation.
As an aside, in the converged future using apps makes it easy to protect revenue – this is the beauty of apps – they must be bought and subscribed to. And while that can be bypassed on the open web, in a closed environment it can’t, users pay – with data or credit – for what they consume. Everyone is rewarded.
But let’s get back to the core choice here – open anarchy, endless unchoreographed, uncoordinated choice with your data and personal information flying back and forth between hundreds of different suppliers. Or a simple, intelligent, always on system that is simply an extension of you. The world becomes a manageable place, with understandable revenue models when we converge on singular solutions.
Also, we’re not going to stop taking pictures or shooting video. Forget Instagram. We can move this along by visually filtering in real-time, either for captures or reality streaming and ‘auto-tune’ the details of life. Why should we bother with an imperfect experience? As this Microsoft ad shows us, we can already do this, albeit in a damn clunky way – we just need to make this invisible and perfect.
And finally – before you make your mind up, let’s think about the idea of an open data future. Stop and consider who we trust with our data with and what we mean by that. A future where you entrust one company to manage, store and release your authenticated data in tiny, anonymised, fraud-proof packets seems far more preferable.
By contrast, an Open World is a hugely hackable, unsterile environment for information which is incredibly valuable to you. Contemplate how many hundreds of organisations currently hold scattered fragments data relating to your existence, thousands of separate service providers and retailers, each with their own security, data structure, APIs, feeds, privacy policies and moral code. Everything from health records to credit, to personal updates, to dating history.
And, you, the user have no awareness of your own data history. It’s like walking around with amnesia, we’re living in the data equivalent of Memento.
So, to summarise the ‘Skynet’ perspective: what we currently call augmented reality smoothly becomes reality augmented and, in a converged world, is more likely to be a simple, invisible surface to our experience and understanding of the world – much in the same way as we hear, or smell, we will be fed data through incidental surface media around us or insight displays: corneal, contact, glasses or handheld.
In a closed world that content that sits as part of a perfectly formatted encyclopedia of human knowledge accessible through location, audio, search or visual triggers. We will walk down the street and as we give a second glance the computer will match a face, a colour, a pattern, a show and either store or retrieve information around that for me to access or not. it will be our apps that tell us this, not the web; our data stored for us and used for us so that the world around us is always one step ahead of us. So vote now. With your iPhone… for the future you want.
Except.. for a long time the ‘perfect’ future just described will be characterised by barely effective design that doesn’t quite work. Things talk to each other really badly, in fact, they don’t get on: the microwave keeps calling the fire brigade on the toaster. Single solutions have inefficiencies.
Truth is, we accept it’s hard to imagine a future of multi-device interactive streamed media without imagining a single provider and convergent technology – BUT if we stop to think about it, most people today have a mixture of technologies and so it will be in future.
What’s more in terms of understanding the world around us, on subjects like pattern recognition, humans are just better at it. In the case of Zooniverse for example, humans looking for planets around stars beat closed computer networks.
Finally, open access to data will transform experience. Let’s imagine a crowd in future, with their thousands of heads up displays mashing up data streaming in from thousands of services, everything tailored to their interests with a market built on popularity and referral. Everything you do is simply an eye gesture or a shake of the head. What does that look like? Imagine a football stadium watching a game, but also pulling up instant replays from multiple angles on contact lens displays or even on arm displays, or handsets. People physically connected and yet also virtually elsewhere, enjoying it with friends all around the world.
This is a world dominated by the free exchange of ideas and information.
The hall marks of an open approach are choice, creativity and opportunity. Why wouldn’t we all vote for the Open Land of the Free?
SO WHERE DOES ALL THIS LEAVE BRANDS?
1. Be useful, be entertaining or be ad-blocked.
Whichever future we head towards, algorithms are going to continue to develop in the way they are now. Take Google’s Panda and Facebook’s EdgeRank – both algorithms that punish boring brands to death. In all honesty, this is a GREAT thing. They demand that brands HAVE to be interesting to earn the right to be anywhere near you. Successful brands recognise it’s a value equation or exchange.
2. Be a serendipity engine.
In future, some brands may help you step off the (hyper-augmented) grid, find serendipity and explore.
3. Be a filter, an expert – “comment is free, but facts are sacred”…
Other brands will adopt the role of editor, expert curator, enabler and opinion leader in their field. Take The Guardian newspaper in the UK (note: a BBH London client) today, which with its ‘open journalism’ approach has just come out with this.
4. … and so is choice.
The good news in all of this for brands is that they still have a powerful role to play in people’s lives. From infants onwards, humans seek out the novel and the different. We seek to make choices. In fact, when denied this opportunity, we rebel. In business terms, this is what the best products and brands offer: the choice of something better.
AND WHERE DOES ALL THIS LEAVE US*
*where “us” is society – the real one, on planet earth today.
1. Change is a crapshoot, messy and irregular
As many a futurist will contend, any future doesn’t happen overnight.. change is a crapshoot. It arrives in an irregular, messy fashion.
2. Dystopias sound dramatic, reality is more middle of the road
Perhaps we’re attracted to dystopian stories because they warn us from unwittingly heading in the wrong direction. To know where the buffers are, so we don’t actually hit them. The reality is that, faced with extreme scenarios and pushed into a corner, society tends to self-correct. Anything to do with the singularity debate would be immediately in a position of antitrust. Likewise anything approaching the anarchy of truly open free market mayhem is regulated back into line.
3. Fluid intelligence will beat knowledge
What does seem to be true is that we’re already changing and adapting in the face of fundamental shifts in how we receive data. When all data is instantly available at our fingertips, what Jamais Cascio describes as “fluid intelligence” – the ability swiftly to see patterns in a flood of data – will beat knowledge.
4. Mankind. We like to meddle.
Finally, perhaps we can sleep a little easier knowing that, if anyone or anything gets too extreme or out of line in our corner of the interwebs, well, as individuals we can’t help ourselves… we have to intervene.