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These New Dystopian 'Advertising Eyes' Stare Right into Your Soul

The new technology, which scans crowds to decide what kind of product to advertise, is evidence that we're living in a dystopian satire written by a heavy-handed idiot.

Sam Kriss

Sam Kriss

The new people-scanning advertising eye at Birmingham New Street Station, presumably after having picked up a strong whiff of someone who really likes exotic birds (Photo courtesy of Concept Signs and Dynamic Digital Displays Europe)

As if it weren't already obvious that we're all living in a wacky parallel universe, a twisted parody of the real world—possibly created by a blind god or a power-crazed mad scientist—the city of Birmingham has decided to build for itself the Eye of Mordor, to be installed above the revamped New Street Station.

Not just one eye, but three. These are enormous advertising panels in the shape of vast and inhuman eyes, each made up of hundreds of tiny television screens, that will simultaneously watch everyone who passes before them, lights flashing across their eternally unblinking surfaces.

What makes these screens unique—they're the first of their kind in the country—is that they look back at you. Hidden facial-recognition cameras will scan the area in front of the station, and deliver advertising messages tailored to the demographic profile of the crowds.

So, presumably, if a trainload of incoming college freshmen pulls into the station, the giant eyes will condescend to them about drink offers and the silent menace that is chlamydia. A group of sad and sweaty business drones will prompt messages about erectile dysfunction pills, hair loss treatments, cars that look like they're worth more than they really are, luxury dog food, and all the rest of the dull flotsam of meaningless adulthood. And if some kindly old ladies should totter through, clanking against their walker frames, the vast eye above them will taste their frailty in the air, narrow its gaze in their direction, and start furiously flashing large-print advertisements for life insurance, bath lifts, Dignitas.

Occasionally you get moments like these—think of TfL's "secure beneath the watchful eyes" campaign—when the mask of reality slips a little, and the world reveals itself as something so stupid it can only be satirical. Not even a good satire, but something clunky, derivative, and heavy-handed, built by an idiot. We're living in the scribblings of a slightly dim teenager. The real world is out there, impossibly distant. Somewhere beyond the walls of space and time there's a person who looks just like you, but unlike you they're happy, fulfilled in life, safe in the knowledge that they can leave Birmingham whenever they want and without being stared at by a giant mechanical eye bolted to the wall of a John Lewis.

For the moment this is an indignity to be suffered only by the unfortunate citizens of Birmingham, but it can't be long before the giant eyes are everywhere. What all this amounts to is the internetification of what's still sometimes called the "real word," the reconfiguration of everything that was once solid as a giant pop-up ad. Targeted ads like these are what keep the internet going: all the eminently clickworthy content farms you're wasting your life on can only afford to pay their writers such exorbitant salaries because they're reading you, just as you read them. Every exciting new web project, however high-minded, is built on the rubble and crap of the online experience. Weird tips, discovered by perkily anonymous moms, that doctors hate; newly discovered Amazonian berries that can turn you from a revolting lardy sphere into something minimally fuckable; CGI tits begging you to download some stupid app about dragons.

Google, which alternately pretends to be a clear-eyed collaborative project seeking to compile all the world's knowledge and a sinister legion of doom building robot cars and frantically searching for the secret of eternal life, is actually probably the most boring company in the world. It made its vast fortune by collecting billions of scraps of meaningless data about its users, and then selling them on to companies selling plastic shoes or pet accessories.

The new rulers of the world don't want our blood, our toil, or even our money. They just want our attention. And the internet isn't enough; there's always the chance, however small, that you might turn off your computer and go outside. So now they've followed you, and erected a monstrous million-dollar eye of evil above the center of the city, in the desperate hope that it might get you to buy a sandwich.

There's something inherently queasy about eyes, the quivering jelly blobs that look back at you: the scene in Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou where an eyeball is cut by a razor is still sickening, and the great literary pornographer Georges Bataille had great fun putting eyes in various unwholesome places. For the moment, the giant eyes in Birmingham only see you as a vague cloud of demographic data—but it's only a matter of time before they can see everything you've spilled into the vast confessional booth of the internet, all the bodily insecurities you've whispered into the search bar, all the lonely fears you've inexpertly masked in Tinder messages that nobody replied to, so that it can stare, like Sauron, right into your soul. There's already technology that allows audio messages to be delivered to specific people, and screens that display different images from different angles. Within a few years, each of us will be trapped in our own personal hell, taunted by our own past deeds, forever.

Of course, a few clever types are likely to point out that Birmingham's big new eye bears a striking similarity to the world of George Orwell's 1984. In fact, the comparison is fairly stupid: compared to the luridly sadistic shitscape that will shortly rise up amid us, Orwell's Airstrip One is a paradise. The telescreens in 1984 make sure nobody is doing anything forbidden: you're forbidden from free thought, non-procreative sex, or friendship, and so all you have to do to defy the rulers is to think, talk, or fuck. Now, power is so total that it doesn't even have to forbid anything. That way, there's no escape. If you have a sexual fetish frowned on by polite society, the giant eye can recommend you a few accessories. If you want to be a revolutionary communist, no problem; it has some books to sell you. And if you want to read an article about how awful all of this is, and share it with all of your friends, then that's fine too.

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