Creepy Technology Is the New Normal

By Samuel Greengard Print this article Print
privacy-stealing technology

One era's creepy technology is another era's norm. There's a lot of research to show that an ongoing barrage of anything raises our "creepy threshold" over time.

New technology has always been a bit creepy. 19th century Luddites smashed machines. The introduction of caller ID in the mid-1980s ignited controversy about privacy, and the widespread adoption of video cameras in public places during the same decade unleashed a massive wave of angst and anxiety.

Now all of these technologies elicit hardly more than a yawn. In fact, one study conducted in 2013 found that 70 percent of Americans think it's a good idea to place more surveillance cameras in public places. Similarly, people who used to get upset at the idea of their phone number showing up on caller ID now demand that callers identify themselves.

It's safe to say that things often flip. One era's creepy technology is another era's norm. Moreover, there's plenty of research to show that an ongoing barrage of anything raises our "creepy threshold" over time.

People eventually wear down and accept something as the new normal. These days, one only has to look as far as Facebook and Web advertising, which home in on our interests and proclivities with uncanny precision.

A few years ago, people were freaking out. Today, it's almost as if someone hit the mute button.

Meanwhile, the boundary continues to expand. The latest entry in the creepy derby is a search engine, Flipora.com, which went live in mid-June. It bills itself as the world's first search engine that "learns your interests and recommends Websites based on your current mood."

I'm not against personalization—especially an opt-in model that most of American business seems to have overlooked in the stampede to achieve maximum profits at any social cost. But I'm not sure I like the idea of a browser attempting to understand what I'm feeling—or guessing at my mood at any given moment—and dishing out recommendations and ads based on that. A bit of ambiguity isn't necessarily a bad thing.

However, the search engine's so-called "recommendation engine," which relies on "Web discovery" to tune into users' interests, boasted 29,234,717 users as I penned this post. Flipora claims that it is signing up 25,0000 new users each day.

So, I guess that at a certain point the question becomes: Is there really such a thing as creepy, or is it only a temporary condition on the road to near zero privacy?

I would say that time will tell, but I'm guessing that we already have the answer.

This article was originally published on 2014-06-23

Samuel Greengard is a contributing writer for Baseline.

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