Clay Schouest
Jul 21, 2017

Programmatic pants

Carat's Clay Schouest shares a chilling vision of a future where machines make all choices—right down to your unmentionables.

Programmatic pants

It’s 2050. Advertising as an industry has long been dead. That’s because choice, preference and conscious decision-making is no longer a practiced human activity. It’s been replaced by the complete automation of our lives.

The last active human choice was registered on the 10th of December, 2049, by Wayne Clayton in Singapore. The automation of decision-making had reached the point where everything in life was managed through machine-based algorithms. By 2030 everyone on the planet, save for a few self-proclaimed luddites, had already fully embraced this automated life.

Wayne also practiced life automation, apart from one single conscious decision: he reserved the right to choose his underpants every morning. This was his sole act of self-expression and his only remaining mechanism of protecting his individual identity. His right to choose was not an act of political defiance. Rather it was his way of reminding himself that he was still part human. He treasured his multi-coloured, multi-patterned pants collection in the same way an art collector treasures the uniqueness of craft in today’s context.

But on that 10th of December morning, Wayne woke up feeling tired and slightly hungover from the previous night’s soma binge. He decided he didn’t have the energy nor the straight sight to choose his pants. Upon waking up and realising he would probably be late for work, he rolled over and capitulated the last act of human freewill. “Alexa”, he croaked, “please select my pants”. And that was how the last active choice on earth was given up to an algorithm. That is how programmatic conquered pants and with it, the last choice in the world.

The futurist Ray Kurtzweil’s dream had finally become reality.

So how did we get here? Most experts trace back the point of departure to the last ever Olympic games in Tokyo 2020. This was the first occurrence of real-time deterministic data combined with the known genetic code of each individual athlete to accurately predict the outcome of every sporting event. The IBM Watson algorithm was so accurate that it was not only 100 percent correct in predicting the Gold, Silver and Bronze medallists, but also the exact placement of the remaining athletes. The act was hailed as a breakthrough in predictive technology.

But in 2020, life automation was still in its infancy. Artificial intelligence and machine learning was still largely restricted to the automation of industries and large-scale projects such as Watson. Its exponential growth would soon gradually start prevailing in all aspects of life thereafter.

Initially the promise of machine-learning algorithms was celebrated as an ingenious way to improve life and a testament to the spirit of human progress. In the beginning, the algorithms offered limitless choice. In a world where everything was connected and predictive, the possibilities to enhance life seemed endless.

The use of algorithms in advertising provided the ability to customise exact offers and brand messages specified to meet the exact needs of the known individuals’ preferences, habits and predilections. It was a marvel of prediction. In fact, algorithmic advertising had become so accurate that it was able to predict and stimulate behavioural consumption demand before individuals actually knew themselves.

Gradually, by 2030, machines had become so intelligent and predictive that choice had begun to reduce and narrow. The advertising industry was the first affected by this reduction of choice. The algorithms had become so smart at predicting and stimulating future demand that people started to become less inquisitive, less spontaneous and more passive. It was more convenient to let algorithms make choices for them. The result was a self-perpetuating bubble whereby the machines started narrowing down choices and reducing randomness based upon their excellent predictive optimisation techniques. Like the abandoned goldmines of the old west, advertising and marketing as industries ceased to be productive and were shut down completely.

This narrowing down of choice was the beginning of Singularity.

At this stage not all were happy with the increasing automation of life—artists and religious leaders being particularly sensitive. By 2040 these two seemingly incongruous groups had formed a strange bedfellow’s alliance called the “Spirit of Randomness”. They argued for spontaneity and inquisitiveness and practiced random acts of kindness as demonstrations of the human spirit. But things turned dark and the alliance was eventually disbanded after the machine-learning intelligence agency predicted and prevented random acts of terrorism that had been planned by the group to hack and sabotage the world’s central neural computing network system.

By 2045 the writing was on the wall. The automation of life had become so predictive and optimised that almost no choice remained. The sheer accuracy of predictive optimisation had reduced choice to a single point. The repercussion of this was a sea of sameness. Almost everyone wore exactly the same clothes, had exactly the same driverless car, lived in exactly the same apartment layout, listened to exactly the same music and worked in exactly the same industry—mining solar energy to help fuel the ever-increasing power needs of the supercomputers.

And by 2049 it was only Wayne, left with his single conscious choice of which pants to wear in the morning: 3 million years’ worth of human development, driven by curiosity and drive for self-expression, had been reduced to which colour briefs Wayne would select that morning. The end of self-conscious thought and choice happened not with a bang, but with a morning fart and a whimper.

Clay Schouest is chief strategy officer at Carat APAC.


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