About 20 years ago, Edward Tenner wrote a prophetic book, Why Things Bite Back: The Revenge of Unintended Consequences, in which he identified the “revenge effects” that result from some of the technology advances that have defined our improvement-obsessed society. Things like superbugs emerging from antibiotics, carpal tunnel/back pain from computer usage, and crop control that actually attracts pest populations rather than eradicating them.
It’s a case study of Murphy’s law. So as we continue to live in the exciting world of the Internet of Things (IoT), the question of revenge effects looms large. It’s the “Jurassic Park” conundrum of “can” or “should.”
IoT is both the chaotic bleeding edge of technology and the absolutely certain path of how we will conduct business and commerce in our connected future.
According to a recent Forrester study:
“(IoT) solutions help companies bridge the physical and digital worlds, ingesting information and context through sensors from the physical world into the digital and taking actions in the physical world via actuators based on digital insights.”
What that means in plain English is that virtually every interaction you’ll have with a product, service or piece of technology will eventually be tracked by sensors and transformed into data on the cloud. The data then will be harvested by companies, service providers, marketers, insurance companies and government agencies who will slice and dice it into the products, services and information your profile says you want and need.
To be clear, IoT is not something in our far, far off future. Adoption is happening at a blistering pace, right now. Market research company Gartner estimates that “6.4 billion connected gadgets will be in use worldwide by the end of (2015), rising to almost 21 billion by 2020. Roughly 5.5 million devices are hooked up to the Internet of Things every day.” The New York Times recently reported that within a year of starting its operations, “Microsoft cloud handles a trillion sensor messages a week.”
Let that sink in for a minute. Then multiply that number by the immense server capacities of Google, Amazon, Apple, the Telcos, and literally thousands of worldwide data centers, and you have an inkling of the sheer scale of this transformation.
For now, most of the activity in IoT is happening behind the scenes—supply chain management, inventory control, shipping and tracking. But the frenzy over this technology among consumer businesses is mind-boggling. B. Bonin Bough, VP of global media and consumer engagement for snack food juggernaut, Mondelez, has stated that, “Mondelez might become one of the biggest technology companies in the world.”
Here’s a hypothetical scenario:
Mondelez puts sensors on its products, like Chips Ahoy! and Oreos. These sensors can track inventory, sales velocity and replenish rates, freshness, store locations and much more. When you pick up that package of Oreos at your local Kroger, it’s scanned at checkout and merged with other sensored and scanned purchases you’ve made. Those purchases could be linked to your debit card, which now inexorably links the Oreos to your household, personal data, bank account, contact info and, ultimately, your smartphone.
From here, depending on your view of push marketing, you’ve either entered the kingdom of heaven or all hell just broke loose. Kroger could aggregate your data into a personal shopping list that includes all of the items you typically buy. They’ll send you a text to confirm the items and price—the items will be delivered to your door within the day (by drone or driverless car) and the balance due will show up on your debit or credit card.
Couldn’t be easier.
But as Guthy-Renker says, “Wait, there’s more!” With emerging machine-to-machine interactions (M2M), this data can interact with data from other devices. For example, if your home is secured and heated by Nest, Google knows which rooms you enter, when. It knows when you’re home, which lights you turn on and for how long, when you use your washer/dryer and how long it takes to blow-dry your hair. Which can then be tied to personal care products, laundry soap, travel and leisure among myriad other things—all of which have sensors of their own that generate even more data.
Nest could also know when you open your refrigerator, which is tracking the contents inside, including the Haagen-Dazs chocolate gelato that’s almost empty. At some point, you’re going to get a message on your smartphone stating that it’s time to restock the Haagen-Dazs, and most likely the Oreos. If you restock your gelato every other day, the frequency can be noted by the home health care app on your phone, which relays that data to your health care insurer, which recommends a fitness program or raises your premium. Even with this seemingly absurd hypothetical, you can see how interconnected data can become a lot more than a convenience.
Fortunately, we’re not there. Yet. Because of the enormous range of sensors, customer scenarios and providers, there are no industry tech standards, or worse, privacy guidelines or security protocols. But they’re coming. As this blizzard of sensors and data hits us, there will be a ton of profound questions.
Setting security aside, the implications for advertisers, marketers and society at-large are unprecedented and profound. From a marketer’s perspective, exactly what should a brand target, a living human being or his/her data set? If purchase behavior is so granularly tracked and reliably predictive, why market to people at all if they’re satisfied with what their data is delivering? Will our notion of choice be redefined? Is there any need for advertising, branding or marketing of any kind if the purchase process is predetermined by data and the efficiencies it delivers?
IoT could become both a micro-segmentation and rationing tool to develop highly calibrated marketing campaigns. The idea of affinity groups of consumers becomes irrelevant in the context of a technology that can efficiently target millions of consumers one at a time. Marketers can pinpoint geographic product distribution as part of a penetration strategy to either flood a market to kill a competitor or create product scarcity to raise prices. Taken to an extreme, IoT could even become a vehicle for social engineering. Consumers’ preferences and credit ratings could dictate which products are made available to them, creating new exclusivities and inadvertent social divisions. Regardless, the role of marketing, brands, consumer choice and control will be revolutionized and dramatically different from anything we know right now—with potential revenge effects that are too numerous and daunting to begin to contemplate.