WPP Atticus Awards Winner: A Spy in the House of Love: On A Post-Privacy, Post-Tech Future

WPP Atticus Awards Winner: A Spy in the House of Love: On A Post-Privacy, Post-Tech Future

On Tuesday, January 20, 2009, the entire world watched one man. The swearing in of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States left American eyes misty and touched hearts around the globe.

“This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed,” the new President said that day, “why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” (1)

If in just over 55 years Barack Obama could rise from being the son of an African immigrant in a racially-segregated America to become the first African-American to attain the highest office in the land, what can we expect to see in another 55 years?

What will we look back on from this historic year and think, “How did we ever live that way?”

The globalizing world is moving exponentially faster: technology is quicker, smaller, cheaper. People are more connected to each other — despite cultural and linguistic differences — and, as a result, are evolving to be more tolerant and less afraid. Or so one hopes.

Peter Merholz is a founding partner and president of Adaptive Path, a San Francisco-based company focused on user experience, strategy, and design. In 1999 (a time which events have turned into prematurely ancient history), he also coined the now ubiquitous, quintessentially early-2000’s term: “blog.”

Merholz mused that technology today has become far too complex. Currently, engineers and designers are so intent on proving their capabilities that the user can be forgotten.

Simply because we can do more, doesn’t mean we always have to. In this new era of advanced-technology-for-all, we’ve seen the concurrent rise of a kind of down-home, user-generated content: YouTube, Yelp, Twitter, Facebook. Today, if a tree falls in the forest, someone blogs about it. If Motrin makes moms mad with an advertisement that implies they are using their babies as fashion accessories the blogosphere erupts in angry diatribes, and YouTube is ablaze with negative home-video reactions. (2)

In the future, Merholz explains, technology will return to its role as servant, as opposed to star. “Customers will have a different set of values, with less focus on features and functionality, and more on how it will fit into their lives as an enabler, a helper, and not something that overwhelms them.”

Alexander Rose, executive director of the Long Now Foundation, spends a lot of time thinking about the future as well. One of the foundation’s current projects is the Clock of the Long Now, a 10,000-year timepiece designed to tick once a year in the Nevada desert for ten millennia. In that context, 55 years is a mere grain of sand.

In his opinion, the primary shift will be our acceptance that we no longer have privacy. “People still think they have it,” Rose explains in his foundation’s San Francisco headquarters. “But I think it’s actually long gone.”

The prevalence of public cameras and the sheer amount of personal information we’ve all shared on the Internet, and with every company and organization we’ve come into contact with, leaves us, figuratively, naked.

But while a lack of privacy conjures paranoid visions of a world of spies, one could argue that we crave the exposure. The web is rife with confessional blogs that rant about everything from Internet dating to real-world fetishism, motherhood to mental illness, cupcake recipes to veganism. A quick scroll through MySpace reveals a plethora of literally (half)-naked poses. Gen Y is clearly crying out for attention.

Maybe the kids on the playground were right, and secrets don’t make friends. Maybe it’s healthier for our collective unconscious to truly be a shared understanding. Maybe in 55 years, we’ll live in a world that cannot be shocked or manipulated by fear — since we will all have seen it all.

It’s easy to get discouraged thinking about the quickening pace of environmental degradation, about intractable wars, famine and disease. It’s easy to forget that none of it is inevitable any more. That our newly small world of shared information, shared hopes and ideas and technologies, might yet be able to produce solutions to humanity’s greatest challenges. How could you drop a bomb on a neighborhood when you know the faces behind its windows? Maybe the reason we have not found a viable clean source of energy is because we aren’t working together.

Two summers ago, on a road trip from Portland, Oregon, to Austin, Texas, I spent the night in Roswell, New Mexico — supposed site of a 1947 UFO landing. The local museum was a tourist trap displaying life-sized plastic scientists performing autopsies on green, rubber aliens strapped to white-sheeted hospital beds. Its souvenir shop was chock full of cheesy ties, coffee mugs, and magnets emblazoned with flying saucers. But there was one exhibit I’ll never forget: a framed list detailing all the possible reasons that the world’s governments might want to cover up the existence of extraterrestrial life. The primary motivation? People  might start thinking of themselves as Earthlings, instead of aligning themselves with individual countries.

In 55 years, we may wonder how we ever based hate on a person’s skin color or country of origin. And as we shed our secrets, we may even shed our thick shells of individualism. Of course, James Bond will be impossible to understand in 55 years — in a world of no secrets, there will be no need for spies.

Because in 55 years, we may all just be Earthlings.

And if you doubt that a lot can change in less than a lifetime, look back 55 years at a man who might not have been served at a local restaurant. And then look where his son is now.

1. Obama, Barack. Inaugural address, 20 January 2009. (Transcript from msnbc.msn.com).
2. Bishop, Martin, “Motrin’s weekend headache,” Brand Mix, 17 November 2008. (brandmix.blogspot.com/2008/11/motrins-weekend-headache.html).

Winning Under-30 Essay for WPP’s international Atticus Awards. Published in Atticus journal and on Warc.com, a subscription-based site (the annual awards honor original thinking in communications services).

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