We Buy Gifts That Surveil Our Loved Ones Because There Is Nothing Else to Buy

It's not just good marketing, we buy Ring cameras and DNA tests and Amazon Echos because we are taught the only way to show our love is through physical gift giving.
December 23, 2019, 5:37pm
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Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Every year for Christmas, we buy ourselves and our loved ones gadgets that will spy on them. We buy DNA tests from 23AndMe that could one day end up in a police database, we buy Amazon Echo and smartphone technology used to target us with ads, and, increasingly, we are buying Amazon’s Ring doorbell cameras that are being used to watch ourselves and our neighbors, create a warrantless police surveillance apparatus, and serve as an attack surface that can allow hackers to enter our homes.

Much has been written about why we do this to ourselves: Ring’s advertising campaigns focus on selling fear, making it so we don’t trust our neighbors or our UPS drivers. That is surely part of it, but I have another theory that is perhaps a bit simpler than the idea that we have been conditioned to fear everyone and everything. We buy products that actively harm us and our loved ones because there are simply fewer things to buy, but we have not adjusted for this fact as a society. We still have Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales and affiliate marketing from every website we visit, and we have to buy our loved ones something for Christmas, or their birthdays. And so we eventually buy a video doorbell or a smart speaker or a DNA test because what else are we going to do?

This is a knock-on effect of the iPhone and the end of physical media. The “one device” is quite literally that, a phone that’s also a camera, a video player, a video game console, a television, a music player. A decade ago, you could get your techy wife or husband or son or uncle or grandma a DVD player one year, an MP3 player the next, a digital camera the year after that, a video game after that, and so-on-and so forth. You could repeat this cycle every few years when their old MP3 player died, until we all eventually died and the heat death of our Solar System brought capitalism to a merciful end.

But the iPhone has replaced all of those devices, while services like Netflix, Spotify, and digital video game marketplaces have largely replaced physical media, meaning that there’s nothing to put under the tree when your son comes home from college, because he already has every single song that has ever existed, a digital library of Playstation 4 games, and an iPhone. We can, of course, simply buy our loved ones a new iPhone, but these are increasingly expensive and they last a few years, so what are you supposed to buy them in the meantime?

Ring cameras and Amazon Echos and 23AndMe DNA tests and connected coffee machines have filled the void.

Our culture still treasures the act of unwrapping a physical item, and we still treasure gadgets, it’s just that today our gadgets watch us and are loss leaders for an economy built on surveillance and ad technology. But we have to buy something and so we buy products that give monopolistic companies unprecedented access to our actions, thoughts, and feelings, which they have monetized.

There is little research on my specific theory, and yet I know it to be true. Anecdotally, I have spoken to dozens of people who buy surveillance tech specifically because they needed a last-minute gift or because the wow factor of letting a loved one peer at their front porch on Christmas morning is more exciting than giving them an iTunes gift card.

“Intuitively, that feels totally right to me. There are just too many gift-giving ‘opportunities’—for example, in a typical year I need to buy my wife a birthday gift, an anniversary gift, a Valentine's Day gift, a Mother's Day gift, a Christmas gift, and probably some other gifts I'm forgetting,” Scott Rick, associate professor of marketing at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan told me. “Who has the time to lovingly choose that many customized gifts? Eventually, you're going to buy your spouse a Ring.”

Some people are, of course, pushing back against the materialism of capitalism—the minimalist movement is into buying and receiving experiences rather than physical objects as gifts, and there is a wariness of capitalism in general among young people in particular. But these movements are happening at the fringes, while most of America has been trained by big companies and our own government that capitalism is good, and buying things is not only necessary for the economy to function but necessary to prove to our loved ones that we do indeed love them.

“The press about surveillance capitalism focuses on unintended effects like hacks and data theft,” Princeton professor Arvind Narayanan tweeted recently. “That’s important, but we must resist the *intended* effect—the cultivation of a consumerist society whose behavior can be manipulated at a massive scale to suit commercial interests.”

This is a bigger and harder problem to solve than those who think we’re buying Ring cameras simply because we’re scared. Citizens have been systematically turned into “consumers” by their governments, explains Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet and Secondhand.

“Governments have been lecturing citizens on how to be better consumers for decades,” Minter said. Tech companies, meanwhile, have increasingly been pushing social commerce, in which we increasingly know what our friends and family are buying. This happens not just through oversharing on Instagram and Facebook, but through what Minter calls “social pressure commerce” on platforms like Poshmark, “where you befriend the people who buy and sell you clothes. This transforms a social relationship into a commodity and—I think—creates pressure to deepen those commercial relationships, especially via devices like Alexa.”

What pushes us to buy these items, then, isn't simply Amazon's marketing, it's generations upon generations of materialism and consumerism imbued in us from the day we were born. Merry Christmas!