Lord Sugar's OptimEyes system will track your face and eyeballs

Now when we gaze into the abyss of direct marketing, it will gaze back, and come to know us.

As the amount of consumer data in the world proliferates like bacterial mass in a petri dish, companies expect to see more and more of it before committing to advertising spend.

Rather than just plastering brand names on any physical space and hoping for the best, marketers need hard, numerical reassurance from media platforms to prove their campaigns will deliver the right return on investment.

Measured talk of “bang for yer buck” has been de rigueur for some time in the world of online advertising, where the nature of the medium has afforded advertisers increasingly precise information on who is clocking their brand, when they are doing it, and what their online habits are.

But until now, meatspace marketing has largely relied on best guesses to calibrate public exposure to ads.

Enter Lord Sugar and Amscreen, the digital signage business he chairs, which is rolling out the dystopic-sounding OptimEyes system to its 6,000 display screens worldwide. OptimEyes screens will watch you as you watch them; analysing your face and recording for advertisers your age, gender, location and hunger for emptying your wallet.

How wonderful.

The type of technology we all thought was desperately creepy when it started appearing in living room corners via the Xbox Kinect add-on is now actively evaluating our commercial potential, rather than just animating charming cartoon homunculi of us in pretend sports.

When we gaze into the abyss of direct marketing, it will now gaze back into us. And it will come to know us.

While OptimEyes is a fantastic business idea, and has the potential to revolutionise display advertising if it works as claimed, I would hope we can all come to the further consensus that it feels downright bone-deep horrible. 

Particularly troubling is the system’s ability to tell the sex of the person glancing at an ad. Gender-focused advertising is one of the great enablers of sexism as a societal norm, and this sort of scrutiny will only give advertisers more reason to presume our wants and needs based on our groinal architecture.

But there is a way round this.

A friend of mine, frothing with irritation at the saccharine weight-loss marketing that Facebook thought someone of her chromosomal persuasion would be desperate to see, recently changed her status to Male.

Immediately, everything was paintball weekends, virile deodorant, and diagrams showing her how to make her lower body look like two yorkie bars wrapped in parma ham. It was no better, but at least less presumptive and personally condescending.

Her small but perfectly formed act of rebellion came to mind when reading about OptimEyes, and gave me a flash of inspiration regarding how to stop this new technology dictating The Way The World Works.

Every member of the British public should carry one of these in a pocket, ready to slap it on and stare directly into the camera as they pass an Amscreen monitor:

Then, like Medusa looking into her own petrifying reflection in Perseus’ shield, Sugar’s abyss can gaze right back at its own mug.

Lord Sugar's new company will track user's faces. Photograph: Getty Images.

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder