The bells chime as I attempt a semi-comatose swipe at the snooze button on my smartphone. The background displays a bright yellow sun; shorts and a T-shirt it is. Throughout my morning routine: bathroom, grooming, breakfast, I cling to my smartphone like an insecure child; left thumb flicking through magazine subscriptions, news headlines, and social media updates. I resist the temptation to tell the world how sour my orange juice is.
Smartphone – check. Wallet – check. The phone automatically leaves the home network and syncs as I hop into the car. Google Maps informs me of an accident on the motorway, and suggests an alternate route. “Turn right in 1.5 miles onto Hen Drick Pot Geeter Avenue,” the stunted American accent dictates. I arrive at the shopping centre to a vibrating alert. “Good morning Ravindra, welcome back to Sandton City Mall. I hope the Asics running shoes you purchased last month are treating you well. Might I suggest the following items for your friend Sipho’s birthday coming up in two weeks.” Thank you phone, I’m not buying Sipho a present, but I am impressed with your ability. Well done.
Despite a momentary warped image of Despicable Me-styled minions sitting beneath the shopping mall tracking the movement of shoppers, the reality is a set of highly complex algorithms linked (with your approval) into your calendar, your bank, your telecommunications provider, and all your social media accounts: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn.
Sound far-fetched? Or all too familiar? To some, this may be a surprise, but we are pretty much there (check out “Google Now”). The only thing holding South Africa back is infrastructure and the mindset of consumers. What are we afraid of? People often struggle to form an articulate answer to that question, but rather refer to fictional movies as the basis for their theories. Is the mask of privacy an excuse to withstand something we just don’t fully comprehend? Although there is an element of appeal to a simple disconnected life, the opportunity cost of not embracing technology is becoming greater and greater.
Remember the good old days when you went to a restaurant that presented its food with a touch of flair, causing you to excitedly snap a quick photo with your camera, run home to your dark room to develop the photos, instantly taking them to all your friends’ houses to show them what you ate? No, neither do I. Yet, despite the counter revolutionary tendencies of some among us to mock and ridicule what a colossal waste of time social media can sometimes be, they also hint at the average person’s desire to connect and be heard; to receive the affirmation of a “like” or a comment only their peers can supply.
Social media is here to stay, and to be heard. Much like radio and television absorbed the hearts and minds of the 20th century, Facebook and Twitter are the pulse of today’s world. During Hurricane Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency encouraged US citizens affected to contact their loved ones via social media to avoid congested telephone lines. Retailers around the world are developing strategies to incentivise individuals, be it loyalty programmes or future discounts, to publish or share their purchases. Announce to all your friends and family that you’re pregnant; don’t be surprised when nappy advertisements start popping up. Walking the tightrope balancing between invasiveness and connectivity, the 21st century retailer is no longer solely concerned with your wallet, but wants to occupy your heart and mind too.
Right, so social media is big, and half the population are undiagnosed nomophobiacs. But, what does this mean for South Africa? Despite the US avoiding the “fiscal cliff”, whose defendants seem to have been distracted by the view, despite euro zone instability, and despite South Africa’s slowing GDP growth and high unemployment, there is still a burgeoning aspirational middle class here at home. And for that class, the retailer is king.
This will be the year banks, telecommunication companies, and retailers negotiate the waters, each seeking to identify their role in this new world. In such setting, the capability of modern technology will be as great as our imagination and as limited as our fear. DM
Ravindra Mistri is an investment portfolio analyst at Capital Eye Investments Limited
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