Marketing in the Age of Surveillance

What do you get when you try to marry perky start-up optimism with the ominous prospect of the surveillance age?

Above: Eye interface image from Shutterstock.com.

What do you get when you try to marry perky start-up optimism with the ominous prospect of the surveillance age?

It’s called the Blackphone.

Sleek, sophisticated, and slim – the device’s sober physicality looks purposefully designed to hum in tune with parts of the brain that contain years of Bond and Bourne, Hunt and Ryan. Billed as the “first integrated smartphone from the best privacy minds in the industry,” the encrypted communications device is essentially a sexed-up Android phone with extended security capabilities for the general consumer.

The “privacy minds” in question refer to Silent Circle, a global encrypted communications serviced headquartered in Maryland, which recently showed the phone off at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. According to its website, Silent Circle was founded by a former Navy SEAL and a world-famous cryptologist. So I suppose if you’re going to have pretenses about protecting yourself from the NSA, you’d probably want a team like this covering your back. And so pretenses were had, and the Blackphone found itself dubbed the “NSA-proof phone” by a wide swathe of the tech media during the Congress.

And of course, as these things go, the phone isn’t really NSA-proof.

“We have a bit of a problem with the press saying that the Blackphone will make you NSA-proof,” said Phil Zimmermann, one of Blackphone’s creators, when interviewed by Extremetech. “If someone [at the Blackphone booth] tells you that it’ll protect you from the NSA, I’ll fire them.”

Learning that the Blackphone isn’t NSA-proof is not surprising at all – at this point in consumer tech history, a device like that would be too good to be true. But perhaps you can’t blame the tech media for picking up the “NSA-proof” nickname. The Extremetech article mentioned that a previous iteration of the Blackphone’s product website was “creepy” and “scaremongering”. I haven’t actually seen this version of the website myself (it’s lost to time, I think), but in my head, the early site was likely filled with copy that played up the oppressive nature of this age of surveillance while positioning the Blackphone as its antidotal opposition.

Somebody in marketing must have said something about how much it would suck if they were seen to be intentionally overreaching, because the current Blackphone product website doesn’t seem to monger scares at all. It could well have been the case that same somebody might have brought up the idea of flipping around and giving the Blackphone a friendly face. Unfortunately, that turnaround was poorly executed, because we are left with a site that’s hilarious, surreal, and blazingly awkward.

If you head on over to the “Individual Use Cases” section of the Blackphone website, you will be greeted with a banner image depicting an upper-middle class suburban mother casually using the encrypted mobile communications device. She’s smiling widely, dressed in white, and sitting pretty against a white, domestic setting with a baby on her lap. I assume the baby is hers. The toddler appears to be innocently and oh so earnestly reaching out to the (white) laptop in front of them, in a moment of slightly malevolent domesticity.

The image is comfortable and pristine, but it’s also the only bright element in a completely black website, making the overall effect weird and disgruntling. It feels like Twin Peaks, or at the very least, vaguely Lynchian.

Further strangeness can be found in the marketing copy that appears beneath the image: “If you ever: (1) speak personally with a partner, (2) worry about your kids, or (3) make plans, share secrets, or want others to mind their business… then Blackphone is for you!”

The Blackphone attempt at “friendlification” might have been somewhat ineffectual, but it perfectly captures the weirdness that comes out from the familiar capitalistic bucket of what you get when you try to pitch something inherently unsettling with a happy face. That is to say, on the one hand, you have the need to peddle tools and instruments that have serious political/ philosophical/ sociological implications, and on the other hand, you have the advertising dictum to make you desire it in a way you never knew about in the first place.

It’s a dissonance presciently satirized decades ago by the original Paul Verhoeven Robocop and unwittingly perpetrated by its recent subpar remake. A spycraft instrument for the general consumer. A military appendage that blends well with your kitchen decor. Casual-chic Internet Kevlar protection. A serious, serious tool to be used in a serious, serious time, but a tool you can have a beer with nonetheless. (“I’d buy that for a dollar!”)

Verhoeven’s Robocop was fantastic in its ability to shake you in strange places, but still provided comfort in the fact that we are allowed to believe the big bad corporation behind Robocop to be cynical and therefore self-aware. The corporate overlords, we are made to think, understand the duplicity and surreality of the space between the military-grade thing that they create and how they are marketing it to the general public, and they cackle gleefully in their taking advantage of a fat, mindless, shopping-centric public. This set of affairs implies that there is still space for the mind to identify the line differentiating between what is normal and what is strange (and therefore troubling) – at least, in the world of the film.

In our world, it appears that the line is going, going… and very soon gone. The tech industry is currently in a place where product design thinking revolves around the feel-good mantra of “making something people love”, in effect cultivating a sense among product creators that whatever they’re making is in the Instagram filter-laced benefit of the larger public interest. It’s a mechanism of thought that compels a sense of grandiosity and purpose rooted in a happy, feel-good, everything-is-awesome aesthetic. And happy, feel-good, everything-is-awesome it is: the Internet is now filled with tech product websites that blare stupidly bright pastel colors and smarmy “I’m just a cool Bon Iver-loving bro, just like you!” marketing copy. (Examples? Pick one. Any one.)

This all becomes exponentially more unnerving when you consider the fact that contemporary tech culture has an almost cultish sensibility, perpetuated by a veritable echo chamber comprised of the many blogs and digital publications catering the startup/tech scene – Disruptions! Innovations! Change the world! Crush it! Leadership! – that have bled out from tech culture into the realm of general interest. (Kevin Roose might argue for their merits as trade publications, but it’s difficult to consider tech and the Internet as “trade” now that it has slowly consumed a wide variety of industries). The biggest downside of all this positivity is the way it eschews cynicism and snark, which are important safety mechanisms for being able to recognize something as bullshit, batshit insane, or downright fucked up.

And it’s incredibly important for a general public to be able to recognize something as bullshit, batshit insane, or downright fucked up – which is why this confluence between the surveillance age, the smarmy tech aesthetic, and the echo chamber nature of the industry is most troubling. Hell, the Blackphone is a thing now. It’s an actual consumer product that’s out there and you can buy it and the media has called it the “NSA-proof” phone and I sort of kinda wanted one when I first heard about it. The Blackphone team might be awkward salespeople right now, but it only takes a more savvy and an equally if not more intelligent competitor to make the right anti-surveillance device and make the right sales pitch. That’s when we’re finally in a world where we can’t recognize the oddity of a world steeped in the age of surveillance.

But then again, maybe we’re already there. In the Extremetech article, Zimmermann noted that while the phone isn’t NSA-proof, a good sales turn out would bring us closer to a world in which there would be NSA-proof phones. “The Blackphone is just the beginning of the conversation,” he said. But if the conversation is about a world with anti-NSA consumer devices, of Blackphone, DuckDuckGo, and Incognito browsers, then we’re already knee-deep in it. So maybe the right way to deal with this is to learn to stop worrying and love the age of technological surveillance – in which case, I’ll be in my room, watching the new Robocop.

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