Born in 1971 and a child of the 1980’s, I often wonder about the Armageddon. I think about where it will come from and who will cause it. This slightly morbid hobby may have something to do with the fact that, as a child, Margaret Thatcher took my school milk away from me, that and the constant threat of nuclear war and electro-pop. I’ve always been fascinated by the darker stories of grim futures. I’ve spent thousands of hours submerged in works of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick, lost in their magnificently disturbing dystopias: their stories full of villains, unfathomable systems and the mysterious leaders that control the hearts, minds and lives of millions of people.
Putting Dystopia at the heart of communications.
I’ve often sat in conferences such as the DMEXCO, listening to incredibly smart people talking about the future of communications, marketing and business, and pondered what it all must sound like to people from outside the industry: normal people, people we tend to call consumers. I’d think they’d be alarmed at what they’d hear and think that we’re all mad and ever so slightly evil.
I’ve started to wonder what would happen if the next great dystopian leader stepped forwards from the ranks of marketing, advertising and sales. Who knows, perhaps they are sitting next to you right now. I started asking myself: what if we put dystopia thinking at the heart of communications? What if Big Brother was the brainchild of an advertising agent?
Putting marketing at the heart of dystopia
So what would happen if a marketing anti-hero stepped up to rule the world? If he or she had been living in Germany during 2017, they would have been hard pressed to escape the hype of the mega themes of algorithms and influencers. Their own personal philosophies, influences and criminal energy would, of course, inform, to a larger degree, the product and future they would eventually invent. In much the same way that Facebook is an extension of Mark Zuckerberg, our marketing dystopia would be the neo-millennial vision of a marketing agent: clean, bright, cold, segmented into markets, full of brands and endless shopping.
One Algorithm to control us all.
The idea of this future wouldn’t let me go. It is a world that I’ve been working on ever since, the centre piece of which is an algorithm called RACHEL. I first presented RACHEL in Berlin back in 2015, and over the last couple of years, she has developed into a bit of a monster. My wife hates her.
RACHEL (Realtime, Algorithmic, Chemical, Enhancement, Lady) is the product of a future run by civil servants and marketing executives: Bond villains who know their way around programmatic advertising and served a sixth-month internship at Group M: George Orwell meets Sir Martin Sorrell and they create the one algorithm to control us all.
Six theories for building marketing’s dystopian future.
I’ve created six theories, not only to support the world in which RACHEL watches over us but to imagine a future that I believe is about five years away, a future that is neoliberal by design.
Anthropomorphism is king.
Algorithms are nothing but bits of code; they’re not even physical and yet will still apply human attributes to them. From Metropolis to 2001: A Space Odyssey we have been giving programmable systems the human form a human voice. It makes it easier for us to accept them and embrace the fact that they are slowly but surely taking over our world. The algorithm to rule us all won’t start life as a Terminator but a branded chatbot on Facebook that answers questions about pizza toppings. In our mind’s eye, it will be winky-emoji-smiling, look like Scarlett Johansson and be wishing us a nice day.
Slave to the Algorithm.
The automatic doors to the shopping centre won’t open because your credit card rating is too low, the engine of your Telsa won’t start because of an unpaid parking ticket, and your fridge won’t open because your bathroom scales told the algorithm that you’re 1,2kg over weight. You can’t binge watch the 9th season of Game Of Thrones because you’ve not consumed enough advertising. Everything around you is connected to the network. It’s all spying on you and reporting back to the algorithm that looks like Scarlett Johansson. Your kettle is a double agent.
The algorithm as influencer.
If your algorithm’s influence is strong, you can stay in the smartest hotels, travel first class, and you receive luxury goods to share with your friends. You’ll be ordering from the best menus at the most exclusive restaurants and drinking sundowners at the world’s hippest bars. People will want to be close to you, not because of you but because of your algorithm. You’ll be hungry, sad and lonely if your algorithm’s influence is weak: only shopping you will be able to set you free.
Market to the Algorithm.
Marketing and advertising agencies don’t bother advertising to you anymore because you’re too slow and you won’t do what they tell you too. They advertise to your personal shopping algorithm. It never sleeps and consumes thousands of brand messages every second. Your algorithm is the target group: it has your credit card details, and permission to purchase. It knows you.
The final disruption.
The one algorithm to rule them all will not rise out of Silicon Valley and will not be coded in the garage by a nerd. Facebook is not to the daemon of a marketing led dystopia. Disruption never comes from the industry sector it disrupts. The algorithm that will change our lives for ever will probably rise out of a chemistry laboratory deep in the heart of WPP. Born in a test tube and not a computer. Sir Martin’s child.
The Algorithm Inside.
At 12.99 Euros for a pack of sugar-free tablets, the new chemical Internet is cheap, quick, hits every conceivable KPI and is highly addictive. We’ll always be on and have high-speed access as long as we keep swallowing the algorithm that now lives inside us: guiding, informing, forming and shopping for us.
So the next time you visit a conference, the next time you watch a presentation about bots, codes and algorithms ponder this: what could happen if it fell into the wrong hands? What kind of parallel future could you build with it? Are the people around you planning a brighter future or a darker future? The marketing future?
The German language version of this article was originally published in Clutch magazine to accompany this year’s DMEXCO conference.