Further corrosive effects of networked handheld computing

Paul Raven @ 17-12-2010

Thanks to recent events, it’s almost banal to talk about how the increasing ubiquity of  mobile devices and internet connectivity empowers the average Josephine on the street, but it’s worth remembering that governments aren’t the only hierarchies feeling the burn: the giants of retail commerce are starting to see the playing field flattened by price comparison apps [via MetaFilter].

Until recently, retailers could reasonably assume that if they just lured shoppers to stores with enticing specials, the customers could be coaxed into buying more profitable stuff, too.

Now, marketers must contend with shoppers who can use their smartphones inside stores to check whether the specials are really so special, and if the rest of the merchandise is reasonably priced.

“The retailer’s advantage has been eroded,” says Greg Girard of consultancy IDC Retail Insights, which recently found that roughly 45% of customers with smartphones had used them to perform due diligence on a store’s prices. “The four walls of the store have become porous.”

Some of the most vulnerable merchants: sellers of branded, big-ticket items like electronics and appliances, which often prompt buyers to comparison shop. Best Buy, the nation’s largest electronics chain, said Tuesday that it may lose market share this year, a downward trend that some analysts are attributing in part to pressure from price comparison apps.

The WSJ points out that not everyone has a smartphone capable of doing this sort of on-the-spot comparison, and that it tends to be applied to “big ticket” tech items rather than everyday bits and bobs like groceries. But if we assume that market penetration of handheld tech and mobile internet continues at its current pace, it’s not a wild leap to assume that price comparison will become a standard function, and possibly even the “killer app” that makes mobile internet appealing to those currently uninterested in its more abstract bleeding-edge “social” uses. If the Western recession continues for a few years, tools that save money will become extremely popular, and as a result we may see market forces narrowing traditionally huge profit margins very quickly indeed.

But hey, it’s not all about man-versus-The-Man: ubicomp also lets you single out your fellow citizens for their transgressions against the public good.

DriveMeCrazy, developed by Shazam co-founder Philip Inghelbrecht, is a voice-activated app that encourages drivers to report bad behavior by reciting the offender’s license plate into a smartphone. The poor sap gets “flagged” and receives a virtual “ticket,” which may not sound like much until you realize all the information — along with date, time and location of the “offense” — is sent to the DMV and insurance companies.

Anyone can write a ticket, even pedestrians and cyclists. No one is safe from being tattled on. Even if you don’t use the program, which went live Wednesday, you can’t opt out of being flagged if someone thinks you’re driving like a schmuck. Inghelbrecht is emphatic in saying he sees no privacy issues with the app and insists the end of road-going anonymity can only improve safety.

Now there’s a delightful conundrum for modern morality: we’d all love to be able to shop that douchebag who cut us up while clocking ninety in the fast lane, but we’d hate to be stung for the two minutes we left the car in a no parking zone so we could pop into the post office on our lunch break. The ability to mutually police each other’s behaviour represents a potentially massive shift in the way we think about society… but it also opens the gates to new forms of non-hierarchical persecution, pettiness and holier-than-thou bullshit.

For example, how about an app for reporting non-Christian (or non-Muslim, non-atheist, non-Liberal or non-Conservative) behaviour to a localised public forum? That’s sure to end well! Or an app for reporting people who throw pets into bins for a giggle, perhaps…

It’s a cliché to point out how much power the networked society offers us as individuals. But it’s less of a cliché, I think, to point out that we’re going to have to learn fast about the responsibility of individual and community power – not to mention a new need for mutual tolerance in a transparent world – if we want to avoid descending into a world even more dog-eat-dog than the one technology offers us an escape from. “Look first to the beam in one’s own eye”, and all that.

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4 Responses to “Further corrosive effects of networked handheld computing”

  1. ConfidentlyDubious says:

    DriveMeCrazy is similar to an idea of mine that I have been toying with for some time. Suppose that each driver can issue one “ticket point” per month to an offending driver, by sending an SMS with the offender’s license plate to a public service. Every driver that gets, say, more than 20 points in a month gets a ticket. (The monthly limit should rule out petty persecutions. Maybe repeated issuing of points to the same plate should be limited as well.)
    Enhanced version: by subscribing to the service, you can get a notification via SMS every time you get a “ticket point”, as soon as this happens. Bad drivers would find this useful, because it would help them know when they are approaching the threshold; but, at the same time, they would probably be pushed towards avoiding the behaviours that get them those dreaded SMS…
    What do you (readers, and also writers, of Futurismic) think of this?

  2. Wintermute says:

    Hey, don’t you Big Retail guys worry about the fall of the four-wall advantage and market price obfuscation: I know just the way to get your circumstantial market inefficiency edge back. Just look at the Wikileaks / anonymous / little guy vs US Government / NASDAQ Fortune 500 cyber war going on: you’ve got to fight digital fire with digital fire, start an E-War on Consumers, and while we’re at it, let’s start with the already most violent of all markets: Fashion.

    All you gotta do is just go hijack some Berkeley CS major senior’s social app-spinoff code, farm out the software changes rubric to some starving non-paid wannabe web 2.0 coders, syphon the brain drain of a couple disgruntled former Yahoo marketing department heads, and hack yourself up a startup dedicated to user-based Little Brother-fashion policing. Have the population report style faux pas in the wardrobes of their neighbors.

    @KatyGaga69: “Jenillica was totally wearing last-season knock-off Prada knee-highs today at our annual adopt-a-Nigerian event. I have CCTV cam evidence of her buying them at THE THRIFT STORE. SOOOO Conspicuous Consumption Fail.” @JessicaFeministXxX: “That asshole Julian Assange TOTALLY psychologically harassed me, seduced me with his tight USED Levis Motorcycle Jeans sporting an impressive bulge that turned out to be rolled up printouts of cables from the Chinese to US consulate. Douche bag. I will not be objectified under the Male Gaze! Flagged for cheapness and douchebaggery.” You could also get “cheap consumer” flagged for flagging a store for over-pricing or for bargain hunting with their iPhone in the aisle.

    Bam, you’ve gone and flipped realtime e-price comparison through the window shopper’s looking glass. In retaliation, instead of forcing you the retailer to compete in true Adam Smithian market environments, you’ve gone and shone the bright light of crowdsourced fashion transparency, forced the consumer to become entangled in the game of, “Who can spend the most money on product x?” rather than who can find it at the cheapest price.

    Once in place all you’ve got to do is buy a few “generous lunches” for the FTC to get that goddamn bleeding heart net-neuter ‘Do Not Track’ list out of the way of your sub-arctic server databases hungry for the social lifeblood of the oblivious user, maybe call down a clout airstrike from Googlezon if you need to carry a bigger stick, they seem to have regulators pretty whipped. As an added bonus, you can auction off all that delicious personal info to the highest bidder. Facebook and Google are in dire need or some competition.

  3. Tom Mazanec says:

    And how does DriveMeCrazy avoid the problem of personal enemies making up imaginary violations to “report”?

  4. Philip says:

    Thanks ConfidentlyDubious for your good suggestions. To Tom’s point, we don’t want this to become a system for abuse and already have numerous checks & balances in place (some of them soon visible to the end-user). Also, you may find it interesting to know that drivers who are registered with DriveMeCrazy get a real-time alert when they get flagged. It is our hope that this kind of immediate feedback will change their behavior on the road. Philip – CEO DriveMeCrazy