Thomas Carlyle—the revolutionary Scottish philosopher who famously argued against democracy by stating that objective truth cannot be found by weighing up the votes for it—had very strong feelings about the impact of moods, opinions and general whimsy in the modern world. In particular he argued that opinions are only subjective truths which evolve with people’s moods, which in turn are affected by culture and society, which are both of course defined by popular opinion.
“There are good and bad times, but our mood changes more often than our fortune.”
— Thomas Carlyle
Now, I’m not going to say that Thomas Carlyle was a great man. He wasn’t even a good man; his often far-right opinions made him a key influence on Marx and Engels and he was actively shunned by the liberals of mid-19th century England. He was, though, a genius where insight into the human condition was concerned (even if he did frequently take those insights to insalubrious conclusions).
In fact, many of his written works still read like modern day marketing textbooks where needs, desires and compulsions are treated as unpredictable and largely intractable truths. The point he makes is that our fleeting moods and opinion changes are not viable platforms for lobbying to or truly understanding individuals. He meant politically, but the same logic applies to marketing.
But all that might be about to change.
Apple’s mood-sensing technology
Mood-tracking is not an entirely new idea: there are whole companies dedicated to it, many working with Fortune 500 corporations. But when Apple start filing patents for mood-sensing technology, you know we’re in for some pretty spectacular upheavals over the next few years. Some of the world’s best technological minds must have come together to identify a commercially viable application; otherwise they simply wouldn’t bother with it.
Until now, mood-tracking technology has always revolved around rather dubious signals. Many of you will (to some extent) use this mentality already, albeit for smaller datasets; for example, assuming that website visit durations are measures of how much people liked the content (when they might just have been bored!).
Facial recognition and eye-tracking are currently the most advanced forms of mood-sensing available today. However, skin conduction has been researched in the past and will probably be the focus of Apple’s investments. Their next wearable tech device, the iWatch, is in development and mood-sensing technology will likely be used to target ‘out-and-about’ advertisements. It could also be used to trigger timely messages about diet, exercise, music choices or lapses in concentration, as moods dictate.
IBM – Predicting the future
You may have heard us talk about Google’s latest algorithm, Hummingbird, once or twice since last year. The reason it has turned so many heads is because it has enough artificial intelligence to understand the context and meaning behind search queries, allowing it to return more relevant and specific results.
But IBM was playing at that game long before Google. In 2005 they started developing their artificially intelligent Watson super-computer in response to a self-set challenge; to make a machine that could compete with humans on the hit U.S. TV show, Jeopardy. In 2010, Watson was already beating Jeopardy contestants on a regular basis.
Watson used Wikipedia and other information sources to create logical connections and return results, very much in the same way as Google’s Hummingbird algorithm. Now, using that same technology, IBM are developing ‘Psychic Artificial Intelligence’ which takes the more personal nature of the internet into account; processing structured and unstructured data about people, including social statuses and updates.
IBM are using terms like ‘Life-Event Detection’ and ‘Psycholinguistic Analysis’. In a nutshell, these tools would be able to discover, logically process and even predict major life events (getting married, having a baby, moving house, leaving college, starting a new job etc) by tying together information from multiple sources such as social networks.
Apple is looking into ways to understand your ever-changing emotional states. IBM is looking into ways to predict your overarching emotional states as they are affected by major life events. Even Dell and Microsoft have made some headway with mood-sensing; the former developing mood-sensing clothes and the latter developing a mood-sensing operating system for home computers!
The rest of us have some serious ethical debates to mull over.
Let’s say you’re moving house and you’ve moaned about the hassle and stress of packing on Twitter a few times. Using this technology, a removals company might be able to identify you as a potential customer and send you a marketing message with a “we’ll take the stress out of your move” proposition — great.
Now let’s imagine that you and your partner are actually moving into your first marital home. You may have moaned on Twitter, but you’re not the type to moan on Facebook and fish for sympathy. However, you did update your Facebook relationship status to ‘Married to Molly Bloggs’; something you never did on Twitter because it always seemed less permanent than Facebook. IBM’s tools would use personal info and other signals to realise that those two accounts are for the same person, you. With access to those tools, the removals company we discussed might be able to send you an even more tailored marketing message offering congratulations to the newly-weds — pretty cool, but maybe getting a little creepy.
But one step further is to predict the future……. let’s say, having a baby. By taking into account certain timing factors (i.e. the average time it takes a newly married couple to start a family, perhaps one year for arguments sake) plus scanning yours and your partner’s social accounts for things to do with babies and broodiness (perhaps Pinterest accounts). Armed with that ammo, brands could pre-emptively target you both, priming you for when you do actually start trying for your first child; and then your second; and your third…
But what if the tech gets it wrong? What if it’s a sensitive subject? Is it right to be this intrusive into people’s lives if it means taking those kinds of risks with their happiness and emotional states?
Many people feel this new wave of technology is infringing on privacy. However, nobody likes having irrelevant marketing thrown their way, plus marketers (believe it or not) don’t want to waste money marketing to you if you’re an ‘irrelevant’ consumer. There is no reason why this technology should hail an increase in marketing, but it just might mean more targeted advertising within more relevant context.
The pivotal issue will be auto-regulation by marketers. In the retail industry, there is some excitement about the evolution of ‘retail therapy’ although many say that philosophy is a little too crass particularly where the boundary between products that improve quality of life and products that play on compulsions become blurry. To use an extreme example, a recovering alcoholic may very well send signals on social networks that indicate suitability for alcoholic beverage marketing, but might not indicate their previous addiction if they wanted to keep it private.
Thomas Carlyle believed that people’s votes were influenced by their moods, which were too fleeting to indicate anything meaningful. Marketers have, for a long time, realised that catching people ‘in a buying mood’ is crucial, but have always approached it as a numbers game. Perhaps this new technology will take the guess-work out of it.
Carlyle was famous for his conviction that all heroes must have flaws because they necessarily have to live and operate in a flawed world; but those flaws should never detract from their achievements. When it comes to mood-sensing technology, perhaps we should allow it the same concessions. In today’s flawed world the applications may not be perfect, but the technology itself could be the hero of tomorrow.