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Technology and the death of authenticity

I read this article recently 'What it feels like to be the last generation to remember life before the Internet', and it really got me thinking. It is indeed tough to recall just how life was before the Internet, or the cellphone, for that matter. What an amazing testament it is to these technologies, that they have meshed into our daily lives so rapidly, far quicker than any other technology in history, and in the process, we have become an inseparable part of it. But, I questioned, what have we lost along the way? After all, everything in life is a trade-off. Among many other things (the ability to disconnect / go off-grid, the simple act of remembering facts instead of relying on Google all the time, serendipity, etc.), one thing that stood out for me, was authenticity.

To be fair, it has been going on from before the Internet. From the first handheld audio records days, a small part of human behaviour has changed ever so slightly. With the Internet (YouTube deserves special mention here), this change was amplified, and with the advent of social media, I dare say it is now an epidemic. I speak of the 'public' vs 'private' persona phenomenon. Social media depicts snapshots of lives at best, and a parallel universe of carefully projected personalities at worst. A recent survey by Custard, a British digital marketing firm found that more that 75% of Brits admitted to lying about themselves on social media profiles. The basic premise being, with current technology and trends, very real fears of being recorded for posterity, and every small act potentially reaching a global audience, are influencing behaviours that are leading to the death (or obscuring) of the authentic self. Plato, in his seminal Republic, touched on this notion "the Ring of Gyges, an artefact that renders its owner invisible, and questioned what moral choices one would make if he were to be invisible and therefore untouched by the consequences of his actions. Modern technology offers the exact opposite question – what choices do we make if everything we do, and everything we say is potentially up for public scrutiny?

Interestingly, this trend couldn't have been timed better. The political climate across the globe is ripe for this. More countries are looking inward, nationalism is on the rise and opposing voices are increasingly being suppressed in the name of patriotism. Never has it been tougher to stick your neck out with an opposing / independent / original view, and never has it been easier to join the chest-thumping crowd with a carefully constructed public persona. The absolute irony of this is, the very tools that are enabling all this, are the same ones that have also enabled the opposite. Have you been surprised by a close friend who always seems calm and reasonable in person, but somehow turns into a fire-breathing hate-spewing vicious person online? Then you know what I'm talking about.

Marketers are acutely aware of, and in fact deeply bothered by, this phenomenon. Imagine spending all those dollars targeting you based on your public persona, only to realise it has little correlation with your authentic self. It must bloody hurt! All these folks liking Ferraris, Spanish holidays, vintage furniture, high-end DSLRs and no one is buying anything! The typical online sales conversion funnel is terrible for many reasons, and this is one of them. But here's the genius "they know this, they've been working on this, and have finally found a solution. And it just might be a freaking good one.

Enter Amazon Echo, Google Home

The last bastion of your authentic self, your home – where you reveal your innermost thoughts and beliefs with your near and dear ones – is now being targeted for marketing data. Make no mistake about this, all the other features "the Bluetooth speakers, the assistants, etc. – are all the sugar coating. This is a potent marketing device that aims to listen in to everything spoken at home, add to your persona detailing, with the aim of finally selling you more. More of what you really want. Not those Ferraris, but that toaster that just broke, or a gift for that birthday party coming up this weekend. That is the final frontier, your indisputable authentic self, the holy Grail of personal data. And the marketers are banging at the gate.

Norbert Fernandes is co-founder and principal at IvyCap Ventures Pvt Ltd, a Mumbai-based venture capital firm that invests in technology firms.

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