The Death of Consumer Discovery

Posted by Sean Carton | June 25, 2015 | 4:30pm

Writing in The Atlantic in 2008, Nicholas Carr posed the question “is Google making us stupid?” His thesis was that regular use of the Web was re-wiring our brains, making us all less able to pay attention, less able to remember things, and less able to think critically about information. “What the Net seems to be doing,” he observed, “is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.”

While many have debated Carr’s conclusions, there does seem to be a fair amount of research supporting his conclusion that “as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.” Try to remember a new friend’s phone number. Try to navigate on your own (no phone!) to a destination you’ve only been to once before or, worse yet, hand a paper map to a Millennial and ask them to navigate for you. It won’t be long until you’re nodding your head at Carr’s conclusions.

But if two decades of Internet usage have reduced our “capacity for concentration and contemplation,” the next two decades might bring something even scarier: a reduction of our capacity for curiosity and discovery.

While it’s tempting to want to slap another version number on the age we’re moving in to a la “Web 2.0,” the next wave of technological breakthroughs might warrant a much more drastic naming scheme. We’re on the cusp of moving away from the Web to an internet that’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time, a digital age where automation driven by thinking machines and an “internet of things” goes far beyond reducing our need to remember and research, to a world where our need to discover and make choices begins to fade.

Today, we’re in an age of transition. In just two decades the Internet has become ubiquitous and we’ve grown accustomed to being connected to it anywhere and any-when. Our portal to the online world has moved off of the desktop and into our pockets and is rapidly in the process of inhabiting (and disappearing into) just about everything we interact with. As Google CEO Eric Schmidt predicted at the World Economic Forum earlier in 2015, “[The Internet] will be part of your presence all the time. Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic. And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room.”

But the disappearance of the Internet into everything we interact with is actually the smaller element of the next digital age. What’s really going to shake things up is when the smart “stuff” making up the so-called “Internet of Things” gets hooked up with the coming explosion in automation.

While we’ve been seeing the signs of the coming age of automation for a while now – robot vacuums in the home barely turn heads anymore—the work that’s been done over the past decade to marry artificial intelligence, neural networks, and autonomous systems (both in hardware and software) is really poised to change the way the world works. Self driving cars are rapidly becoming a reality and many expect that they’ll be commonplace in the next five (and certainly ten) years. While lower-tech manufacturing has been on the automation path for years, new advances in robotics are poised to displace tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of workers in high-tech manufacturing jobs. So-called “white collar” professional jobs, long thought to be “automation proof” are proving to be highly susceptible to automation, with legal, financial, and even medical professions starting to feel the disruption. Even service jobs, long seen as the last stop for workers displaced by robots and computers, aren’t safe, not when vending machines and automated kiosks are on the rise in retail and machines can churn out burritos and pizzas made to order in just minutes.

Closer to home, the explosion in everyday devices connected to the Internet – the so-called “Internet of Things” – promises (threatens?) to automate many of the everyday functions we humans have to deal with currently. Amazon’s Dash wand and Dash Button make going to the grocery store irrelevant: just press a button, scan a barcode, or say what you need and Amazon will ship it to you. Amazon Echo eliminates the need to even check your tablet or smartphone for information: just ask. HP’s printers order their own ink. The Nest thermostat and smoke alarm connect to the Cloud to automate comfort and safety…and do it slickly enough to get Google to cough up over $3 billion when they bought the company in 2014.

So what happens when these two trend vectors – smart, connected “things” and smart, autonomous systems—come together?

For the most part it’s not hard to see the positive side: a world where more and more of the drudgery and repetition is taken over by machines, a world where we can literally sit back and rest on The Cloud. But it’s also not hard to see the downside, too: more automation by machines means less work for humans, even when it comes to lower-paying service jobs or higher paying white collar jobs, both of which were considered for a long time to be either unprofitable (or impossible) to automate. Even professionals as revered and storied as fighter pilots aren’t exempt from the coming changes: Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus recently declared that the new F-35 jet to be “the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly.” If Top Gun’s not safe, who is?

While many have debated the future economic impact of these trends (see the July/August 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs), the coming changes to humanity may be, in the long run, even more far-reaching. If, as Nicholas Carr observes, using the Internet changes the way we remember and think, what will having so much done for us by machines do to the way we discover, create, and dream?

Think about how you discover things now. For the most part, you discover new people, places, and things because you step outside of your routine or have something new thrust in front of you by someone else. You might discover a new place because you got lost while driving (increasingly unlikely with GPS these days) or because you had to take an unexpected detour. You might discover a new product or brand because you ran out of what you normally use and had to go to the store to re-stock. And you might even discover that you’re actually more comfortable sleeping in a cooler room because you forgot to turn the heat up before you went to bed.

Discovery comes from the unexpected and change comes from making a new choice based on what you’ve discovered.

When we encounter something new, we’re compelled to pay attention and make decisions.

Of course, having to make a choice can be disconcerting, and being confronted with too many choices can make us pretty anxious. The incredible glut of information we’re confronted with every day brings with it a lot of choices, and, consequently, a lot of anxiety, a point noted by psychologist Barry Schwartz in his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice. And while the first decade of the Internet seemed to be all about increasing the amount of information available to us, the second decade (and beyond) seems to have been about limiting the information we see in order to reduce that anxiety. Is it any wonder that 1,000 word blogs have given way to 144 character Tweets? That longform writing has morphed into “listicles”? And that infographics have replaced reports? As we move into the age of automation, ceding many of the tasks of our daily lives (along with the accompanying opportunities for discovery) to machines seems to be yet another way for us to limit the choices that cause us so much anxiety. When we off-load choice, we off-load anxiety.

But reducing our anxiety by reducing our choices may come at a heavy cost. When we automate our ordering of household products we eliminate the opportunity to discover new products. Even if we do, the cost of switching in an automated world is a lot higher: once we’re locked in to a brand that shows up without a thought, changing to another starts to look like a much bigger hassle than it did before. Once we get used to being driven by automated vehicles, the desire to change routes in order to shave a few minutes off our commutes or simply enjoy a change of scenery may go away, especially if we don’t even need to look out our windows anymore. Why change?

If this seems like a gloomy scenario, it’s not all that far-fetched. All we need to do is look to see where similar behavior is already happening. Studies of political discussions and media consumption show that people on the ‘Net tend to stay within their own political boundaries, actively resisting information and/or opinions that challenge their own. Data visualizations of Twitter conversations (PDF) show similar patterns, with few people “crossing over” to other points of view. Automatic content targeting has created a “filter bubble” where the more we search, the fewer choices we get. And if you truly want to appreciate the true cost of switching in the digital world, try to switch from one “ecosystem” (Android to iOS, for example) to another…it isn’t easy and it’s often very expensive. Like likes like, and the easier it is to stay where we are the more likely we are to stay there.

In the future, the danger may no longer be the “digital divide” but rather the “digital rut” that all of us find ourselves in.

But getting lost in the Digital Rut isn’t inevitable. Luckily, humans crave novelty and truly new stuff doesn’t just interest us…it actually makes us feel good by stimulating the release of dopamine, the “feel good” chemical naturally produced by our brains. Finding new stuff gets us a reward and we respond by seeking out new stuff.

As marketers and communications professionals, this novelty reaction is probably going to become a lot more important in the future. As technology locks in choices early by automating the buying process (thereby raising switching costs) and facilitating ever-niche-ier media consumption, “breaking through” with new choices and new alternatives is going to be harder than ever, especially after a choice has been made. “Thinking outside the box” will no longer be a cliché but rather an imperative as messages “outside the box” might as well not exist for consumers. Experiential marketing designed to target our novelty-seeking behavior will become more common, with campaigns such as Diet Coke’s “Slender Vender” that include integration between traditional advertising, packaging, vending, and digital in order to create novel experiences for consumers will be the ones that are the most effective. Other channels that excel at placing messages in front of consumers in ways that are hard for them to ignore – sponsorships, out-of-home, environmental, etc.—may be other ways to bridge the Digital Rut that consumers find themselves in. Perhaps we’ll even go “back to the future” as “traditional” channels prove to be more effective in building awareness of products that consumers may not have even thought of or that exist outside of their ever-narrowing visions.

Prior to the Internet, mass-market branding and highly targeted direct mail ruled the advertising world. The Internet honed targeting and performance-based marketing to a fine art. In the next digital age, serendipity — the creation of pleasant surprises—might be just what we need to combat the death of discovery.


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