Why Do We Love To Call New Technologies "Creepy"?

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Aug. 22 2012 3:30 AM

Why Do We Love To Call New Technologies "Creepy"?

When we can’t find another way to explain our objections to facial-recognition software, for instance, creepy becomes a crutch.

People in a bar.
Creepy is the go-to term for broadcasting how technology unsettles us

Photograph by Jupiterimages/Goodshoot.

What if you walked into a bar and everybody knew your name—except you’d never been there before?

A couple of weeks ago, we were introduced to Facedeals, which integrates Facebook’s APIs with facial recognition technology. When you enter a store, restaurant, or bar that uses Facedeals, your mug will be scanned so that you can be offered special deals and get automatically checked in to the location. “Creepy,” tech sites RedOrbit and TechCrunch both labeled it. That’s not surprising.

Creepy is the go-to term for broadcasting how technology unsettles us. Time and time again we’re asked to think in binary terms and identify a device or app either as good or its polar opposite, creepy. Although we’re often led to believe that creepy is an emotional response to things going horribly awry, our creepy radar isn’t nearly as reliable as Peter Parker’s danger determining spider sense.

120820_FT_Creepy-Tech-Illustration

Illustration by John Mix.

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Creepy is everywhere. (I must admit that I’ve abused the word, too. Sorry!)

We give the creepy stamp of disapproval to: digital holograms of deceased stars like Tupac and Elvis; our so-called addiction to technology; seeing too much information displayed on social networking sites; predictive technologies that infer where we're going and what we'll do when we get there; and behaviorally targeted advertising that displays heightened awareness of personal detail. The list goes on and on.

Want to really creep someone out? Just discuss tracking technologies that reveal who can be found where. Eyebrows were raised over Alohar (which can use speed readings to determine if you’re driving or walking down a street,) and SceneTap’s facial detection cameras (which can identify how many men and women are at a bar), and so much uproar occurred over Find Friends Nearby that Facebook pulled the app.

Given the pervasive allergy to creepy tech, even among millennials, engineers are trying to penetrate the personal locator market by developing self-proclaimed “noncreepy” apps like Roundpop. Articles now have titles like, “Ambient social networking apps may need to overcome ‘creepy’ label to go mainstream.”

Beyond being pervasive techno-talk, what does the experience of feeling creeped out really reveal? Does it point to anything important? Or, should we see it as a term used to end dialog, much in the way that religion can be a conversation stopper?

Creepiness can be a powerful feeling, an overwhelming sense of uneasiness. I can’t help but associate the term with negative religious overtones. After all, who leads Adam and Eve astray in Genesis? A snake—a slithering reptile that creeps around on its belly!   

Still, creepiness isn’t necessarily a sign that something is amiss. As the history of technology shows, sometimes feelings are out of sync with reasonable responses. Louis CK strikes comedic gold with this point in his polemic against airplane passengers whose grandiose sense of entitlement led them to feel profound disappointment when a glitch knocked out their state-of-the-art, high-speed Internet connection.

On the flipside, time and time again our feelings convey culturally laden fears about innovation. Consider early experiences of traveling by train.

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