Reflective Writing

A thought experiment on surveillance and reputation economies

This came to me in the shower, so bear with me.

Imagine, if you will, a restaurant. This restaurant serves hundreds of people on a good night, and as many establishments do in this day and age, relies on tips for a good chunk (if not majority) of their servers’ compensation.

Imagine now that the point-of-sale (POS) system in this restaurant can be linked to a backend where customer transactions are stored. This isn’t too hard to believe, it’s the norm in most grocery stores across the nation, though they are courteous enough to ask you to opt in via a loyalty card. Anyways. All transactions are stored, so restaurants have a record of who you are, how often you come in, and so forth. They also have a record of how well you tip.

Now imagine that the restaurant runs some analytics on all this data. Turns out that people have easily predictable tipping patterns (I imagine this is true), and some people are statistically more likely to tip poorly or not at all. This causes both financial and psychological stress on servers, and is generally not great. I’d also imagine that people who don’t tip are often the same people who complain about service, and generally make a fuss. No data backing this up, just observation and inference.

Now imagine, in a world with more ubiquitous social networking and public identity, that making a reservation at a restaurant would require some form of identity confirmation. Nothing ridiculous, maybe you do it through a Facebook page or something like OpenTable. Now imagine that identity can be linked to your payment type, through name or something else.

Now when you make a reservation, the restaurant can bring up your profile and see what you eat and how well you tip. Maybe it’s early in the week and the weekend will be big, and the manager knows it’ll be busy and stressful for the servers. The manager sees your reservation come in, and sees you tip on average 3% and usually never tip at all.

They tell the system to dump your reservation. “Sorry, no tables available.” After all, businesses have the right to refuse service to anyone.

Now this is simply one iteration after what already exists. As I mentioned, the POS-side technology already exists. OpenTable can already confirm your identity. And there are no laws about collecting and using this data without customer permission, it’s just typically a bad PR move, though that could change as well.

Technology aside, this would be the first iteration of what could develop into a reputation-based economy. In addition to the exchange of money, businesses now can moderate their dissemination of goods and services based on the customer and how they’re likely to behave. Uber is doing this to a degree with star ratings for passengers, and indeed if you find a lot of Ubers cancelling on you it’s entirely possible that it’s because previous drivers thought you were an asshole.

And it’s both odd and problematic, and at the same time absolutely has a positive impact. I, who is courteous to his Uber drivers and tips 20% unless something was very wrong indeed, am now getting better reservations and quicker service because people acting like dicks are getting punished. I’m not going to lie, I kind of like that.

But it means that now buying habits and behavioral habits are tracked. And even if the net impact is positive, it still means we are living in a Panopticon. It’s just a Panopticon of courtesy and social norms.


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