Notice: Clear Channel’s new billboards are watching you

March 5, 2016 Originally published on SFGate

Just how prophetic was The Minority Report, Philip K. Dick’s classic 1956 sci-fi tale upon which the not-at-all-awful 2002 Tom Cruise movie of the same name was based? Let us (briefly) examine:

Here is Cruise’s character John Anderton, storming rather tensely through the gleaming, teeming City of the Near-Future as embedded eyeball scanners track his every move and an infinite number of 3D billboards spring to life as he passes by, calling him out by name and offering to sell him heavily personalized everything, from travel deals to a nice, cold Guinness. (See the video clip, below).

Behold, here is Clear Channel Outdoor Communication, the billboard behemoth no one anywhere likes and who is probably one of the Four Horsemen of the Marketing Apocalypse, recently announcing that it’s now adding sophisticated tracking technology to some of the tens of thousands of hateful billboards it owns across the country.

Clear Channel is apparently partnering with AT&T and Satan himself to – you guessed it – track information about you via your cellphone as you pass by, gathering all sorts of data and parsing your personal information in ways no one really understands, all in a viciously capitalistic effort to sell you even more targeted crap you most certainly do not need.

Is that not marvelous? Does it even matter anymore?

Don't worry. they only want to know how insanely gullible you are

Don’t worry. they only want to know how insanely gullible you are

You see, we are on the cusp. Or rather, we are well past the cusp, well on our way to this downright magical, wholly terrifying world that’s one part wonderland and all parts creepy dystopia and we don’t have the nerve or the breadth of understanding, much less the nimble legislation, to curtail it.

How else to parse it? How else to possibly navigate the morass of rapid advancements and nefarious corporate slitherings?

Or maybe it’s better to ask it more rhetorically: What do you get with you combine wildly advanced facial recognition technology, “smart” billboards, massive data aggregators, a mad proliferation of CCTV cameras, hyper-real virtual reality goggles, self-driving cars, life-tracking wearables, advanced drone technology, a mountain of insanely stupid, Bluetooth-enabled “smart” products and massive die-offs of essential plant and animal life, all coupled to an overheated, convulsing planet that’s had just about enough of us?

Answer: No one has the slightest clue. No one can possibly comprehend all of it – not Sergey and Larry, not Apple, not climate scientists, not your everyday “brilliant” futurist, not Zuckerberg or Gates or members of Congress or the antediluvian thugs of the church – with anything resembling a coherent vision.

It’s just too much. There are simply too many moving parts, too many wildcards, some electrifying and inspiring, many downright surreal and destabilizing. Same as it ever was? Sure. Only now it’s amplified and accelerated beyond imaginable scale.

To wit: “Google’s FaceNet algorithm reportedly identifies faces with 99.63 percent accuracy. Facebook’s DeepFace works 97.25 percent of the time. Both systems significantly outperform the FBI’s own recognition program, which reports an 85 percent success rate.” (Vice)

Do you know what that even means? Can anyone possibly know the various ramifications? Of course they can’t. This is the problem. We are not approaching The Singularity, a time when our machines become more intelligent than our ability to understand or control them. That would presume we have the remotest idea as to the specific direction our technology and our species are actually headed. What we’re really approaching is a sort of barely controlled madness, with really good advertising.

But perhaps that’s overstating things a bit. Let’s not get too panicky. People, after all, are not that complicated. Humanity is just not all that sophisticated. Our technology is still fairly crude, considering things like dark matter, deep space, multidimensionality, the true functions of the brain, how Monarch butterflies migrate and how blue whales mate – none of which we really understand in the least. Even our most basic desires and needs are not really all that corrupt or even disastrous, properly framed.

And let’s be honest: in Trump’s insane, boorish America, things like nuance, taste, education, class, intelligence, personal responsibility, authenticity, respect, community, love – these are violently devalued to the point of non-existence. All most really know is fear, marketing, violence, sex and… well, that’s about it. What’s there to worry about?

Maybe nothing. Maybe there’s little to fear. After all, we’re actually rather far from an advanced, enlightened species. We’re likely not long for this world anyway, given how so many appear to have so little interest in using our shiny new toys to further investigate, say, the nature of the soul, or God, or the true meaning of consciousness.

Put another way: Every sad, pallid tech bro you see in Mark Zuckerberg’s famously disturbing photo is not thinking about how wonderful this new Oculus VR device will be for assisting developing nations, or how it might help us curb climate change, or what this might mean for the advancement of cancer research, or education, or overall human creativity.

They’re all thinking the same thing everyone thinks when our tech makes everything more vivid, cheap and realistic: They’re thinking about porn.

Onward, humanity.

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Mark Morford

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