Brand dominates everything in our social and commercial lives. I have a massive attachment to the Honda brand. I have come to associate it with cars that offer durability, reliability, and fuel efficiency at a reasonable cost. As a result, I bought my last three cars from the company. My family has been similarly affected. Between my parents, my sister and her husband, and my wife and me, we have purchased about 12 cars from Honda in the past quarter century. It has become our go-to brand. Why don’t we re-evaluate the whole thing every time there is a buying decision? Because information, once we believe we can rely upon it, is like an investment that pays off for years to come. Once you know something, you can worry about figuring out other matters.
When we think about brand and automobiles, the association is pretty non-threatening. Of course, we will be attached to certain brands and often with good reason. The Honda brand is not irrational in terms of what it offers. It doesn’t purport to provide romance or status prestige. It offers clear, consistent value. But there is a darker and more unjust side to brand. We use brand as a form of social intelligence which applies to persons as much as to manufactured goods.
When I was a child, for example, I feared and mistrusted teenagers in my neighborhood. I didn’t have much experience of them, but my small selection of observations plus what I had seen on television and in movies led me to consider them dangerous. You could say that the teenager brand was a bad one. It still is. Generally speaking, most people who are not teenagers are not thrilled to find themselves in a place dominated by them. Their behavior is likely to be unrestrained and often poorly considered. They are at their physical peak and tend to overestimate their immunity to accidents and other harms. That’s the brand, anyway.
Not many people are worried about discrimination against teens because those years are but a brief period in the life of a person. We go through it and emerge from it more mature. We escape the negative stigma of being a not-quite-yet adult.
There are other types of human brand discrimination which are more enduring and far more harmful. Racism may be the ultimate example. People make judgments about others based on race. If you see an Asian-American man dressed in a business suit, you will likely assume that he is intelligent and capable. If you hear him speak the impeccable English of the American-born Chinese, for example, then your estimate of him will climb still higher. This is an example of a more or less positive form of racism. The individual benefits from the brand established by people who resemble him. There is little question that there are other racial groups whose members suffer discrimination based on a bad brand. That bad brand entails fear of a variety of negative behaviors. When we talk about a brand of car or toothpaste, it makes for an interesting case study to see how the brand might be improved and money made rather than lost. When we talk about a brand that adversely affects millions of human beings, then we begin to think in terms of morality and justice.
But how to overcome a bad brand that damages the lives of human beings who must wear it like a label? We have to remember what the purpose of brands, both formal and informal, is. We use brands as a mental shortcut when we decide how to invest our time, our attention, our presence, our money, and our trust. It is simply too difficult and too time consuming to uncover enough information to make solid decisions about every person who comes across our paths. This failure of intelligence is where Google Glass comes in. At some point, it will be possible for human beings to rate their interactions with each other in the same way we do now with buyers and sellers. If I buy something on Ebay or through a third party working with Amazon, I can do so with more confidence if I see a thousand positive ratings for the seller. A credit rating is basically a report on the experience creditors have had with a specific individual. Imagine what interactions with other human beings will be like when something like Google Glass is combined with extensive social ratings of persons by those with whom they have interacted. Think bigger than business. Think about dating. What if the woman you went on a date with could leave feedback letting others know that you seduced her after the first dinner together and never called back? The women you encounter in subsequent meetings will be able to access the reports of others. She may be scanning the reports as she stares at you across a room and considers how she might react to an entreaty by you.
What Google Glass or something like it will make possible is real-time, relevant intelligence on every human being whom we encounter. When it will becomes possible to possess that kind of information, then the reasons for employing shortcuts such as race, sex, and religion to judge people will be far less compelling. Human beings will have the opportunity, truly, to be judged on the bases of their individual actions and on the impact their actions and choices have had upon other people. Certainly, such information will be corrupted to some degree by the contributions of vindictive persons or various cranks and trolls, but as it accumulates it should be more reliable as a corpus.
This kind of social evolution will raise other interesting questions. For example, how much of racial, ethnic, and religious identity is based on a self-defensive solidarity? If individuals come to feel that they are dealt with justly on the basis of the reality of the lives they live and the decisions they make, will they continue to look to various crusaders to defend them as members of a group? How would the ideological landscape change? How would individuals reconsider their behavior as they interact with others? Would the combination of Google Glass plus social rating cause a great resurgence of interest in virtue? Would human beings return to religion in an attempt to become more virtuous, to become better people? Would workplace laws change? Would various civil protections become irrelevant and unnecessary?
Right now, the big questions about Google Glass seem to revolve around the fear of persons that their activities might be recorded when they do not wish to have them preserved and/or published. The potential implications are far bigger and far more positive. We may establish a more just life for individuals and may remove the corrupting influence of group discrimination from our interactions and our laws.
* Originally published online at The Federalist.