The thing about breakthrough technologies is that we rarely see the break. They tend to sneak up on us. Every now and then, something revolutionary comes out of nowhere, like the iPhone in 2007, but it still took a few more years to take off.
The other thing that we rarely notice is how technology slowly changes us. It modifies our attitudes and beliefs so gradually that we don’t realize it’s happening. But the changes are real and usually permanent.
Just a few decades ago, it was unthinkable to show to strangers the kind of personal images and information many of us share on social media today. Internet access and social media have radically changed our attitudes about privacy.
This evolution has economic and investment consequences that we’re not always aware of.
Eyes in the Sky
Satellite imagery helps businesses from farms to shipping companies run more efficiently. The photos got even more useful when Google Earth began offering 3D versions that made it possible to assess topography.
Almost everyone, however, is still missing the fourth dimension: time.
Most publicly available satellite images are weeks or months old, sometimes even years. That means there’s a lot of untapped potential.
Being able to see live satellite images of some faraway location would certainly be useful. But it’s hard technically because low-orbiting satellites can’t hover over one spot like a drone or helicopter.
The latest idea: deploying large numbers of small, inexpensive satellites. Get enough of them up there, and one will always be in range.
Last week, a Bellevue, Washington startup called EarthNow announced plans to deliver real-time satellite video of almost anywhere on the planet.
EarthNow is not someone’s garage idea. Its investors include Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Japan’s Softbank Group, and European aircraft maker Airbus. Raising capital won’t be a problem.
The company’s website lists some possible applications:
- Catch illegal fishing ships in the act
- Watch hurricanes and typhoons as they evolve
- Detect forest fires the moment they start
- Watch volcanoes the instant they start to erupt
- Assist the media in telling stories from around the world
- Track large whales as they migrate
- Help “smart cities” become more efficient
- Assess the health of crops on demand
- Observe conflict zones and respond immediately when crises arise
- Instantly create “living” 3D models of a town or city, even in remote locations
- See your home as the astronauts see it—a stunning blue marble in space
All very nice, but there’s a dark side to this too.
Real-time satellite imagery of the whole planet means all of us will be on camera any time we step outside. That’s kind of chilling.
Yes, it’s already possible to locate people via their smartphones, but you can stop that by ditching the phone. The satellite, on the other hand, will still see you or your car wherever you may go.
This will have benefits. For example, police could solve crimes by simply rewinding video to track everyone at a crime scene. However, a more malicious government could use it to silence dissidents or journalists.
For EarthNow, your lost privacy will be a revenue opportunity. Its press release says, “Initially, EarthNow will offer commercial video and intelligent vision services to a range of government and enterprise customers.”
They’re also careful to say their video will cover almost anywhere on Earth. You can bet the US government will redact sensitive places. The Pentagon won’t let anyone reveal whatever the heck it’s doing at Area 51.
The rest of us will get less consideration. If you like au naturel sunbathing, you can still do it—but more than just the sun may be watching you.
We Don’t Mind
Combine this new snooping technology with the ones we already face, such as Facebook’s data gathering…
I think this won’t change, though. Because most people don’t mind.
Intentionally or not, we’ve decided the benefits we get from sharing our personal lives outweigh the costs. We like…
- Staying connected with friends and making new ones online
- Having our phones direct us to restaurants whose menus match our tastes
- Getting custom movie recommendations based on our viewing history
These little conveniences are slowly embedding themselves in daily life. Millions of people now have Amazon Echo and other audio devices in their homes. The little boxes don’t listen all the time… but we’re being prepared for the day when they will.
And we haven’t even talked about non-satellite video. Security cameras are now common in public places and increasingly in homes. Have we seriously considered whether their benefits justify making everyone an involuntary video star?
No. It’s just happening.
I think we’re now beyond such debates. The genie is out of the bottle and not going back in. The trend will keep rolling whether you like it or not.
Paying the Price
So, as time goes on, our lives will be increasingly open to everyone. We will share more personal info and expect others to do the same. Everyone will watch everyone else. What does that do to the economy?
For one, the same trend affects businesses. They’re already having a hard time protecting intellectual property. As John Mauldin wrote, some companies voluntarily give their valued secrets to the Chinese government, which gives them access to the Chinese market in return.
That’s the corporate equivalent of the deal web users make with Google. Give up your info and get something back without spending any cash. It will keep happening.
Another consequence of using data as a currency: these transactions have value that may not show up in GDP, but it’s not as negligible as you may think.
It also suggests one way to at least slow down this process: stop demanding free stuff. If you really value something, buy it with cash. If the seller won’t take cash, then maybe you don’t need it.
But that will be a temporary solution. The reality is that our concepts of privacy and modesty have changed radically and will change even more. Companies that admit this reality will probably be better investments.
You may not like what they do, but they’ll make money doing it. Pay attention.