Amazon’s Wireless Blunders

When I’m asked about the artificially generated stampede, I often use the term “malicious intent.”   Because how could a rogue individual, or state sponsored terrorist group, try to synthesize a wireless panic without seeking to do immense harm?  Just in case you weren’t aware, human stampedes are pretty ugly.  Lots of people suffocating and getting their brains bashed in.  I realize that sounds unsettling.  But this is what actually transpires during a deadly stampede.  I don’t think that’s up for debate.

As far as the traditional stadium model, try to think less in terms of the actual stampede… and more in terms of a sudden, unexpected, disjointed, rush to the concourses.  If fans witnessed hundreds of individuals, from various locations in the stadium, suddenly jumping up from their seats and sprinting toward the concourses, how might unique activity like this impact the collective behavior of the crowd?  Would everyone simply ignore it?  Does real-world panic lessen the anxiety of a crowd?  Or does the panic dynamic spawn a state of even greater fear?  I would think the latter.

At a bare minimum, I suspect people would wonder “what the hell is going on?”  I don’t think that’s an unreasonable assumption.  I also think it’s reasonable to assume that some might be confused, having witnessed such a bizarre, spontaneous, unexplained event.  Some might assume there’s a problem and decide to “hedge their bets”… and join the herd.

With that said, two trends within the cellular industry have given me cause to readjust my original line of reasoning.  I can increasingly envision a scenario where there’s no malicious intent whatsoever.

Automatic push notifications in tandem with “frequently bought together” algorithms could cause an “accidental” stampede.

Take for instance, the largest internet retailer on the planet — Amazon.  On September 21, 2017, two separate stories about the company began trending on social media.

The first was a mass email that someone had recently purchased a gift from your baby registry.

An Amazon spokesperson apologized for the indiscriminate, bulk email and blamed the incident on a “technical glitch.”  Recipients received follow-up emails from Amazon with a subject line: “Oops!  We’re sorry, we made a mistake.”

In the scheme of life, giving birth and having a baby is a pretty big deal.  I suspect such a notification would trigger an emotional response from women who’ve had fertility issues, miscarriages, or even worse, experienced the loss of an infant.  It might also come as quite a shock to a husband or boyfriend who hadn’t been informed that a baby’s on the way.

These corporate “apology” emails for faulty wireless transmissions and technological disinformation have become increasingly common.  So much so, that they’ve become the new norm.

Another story about Amazon surfaced on the very same day.  This one prompted a very unusual allegation.  That Amazon was encouraging their customers to construct homemade bombs.  Now how on earth could this be true?

Well, it’s called an algorithm.  When customers buy certain products, they create a consumer profile.  Now this isn’t a big deal if you’re purchasing toothpaste and mouthwash.  But if you’re buying large quantities of magnesium wire and aluminum powder, it’s a different story altogether.  You could find yourself directly targeted with discounts and incentives for additional bomb making components (pressure cookers, batteries, fuses, switch activators, etc.).

Rest assured, I’m not suggesting that Amazon is knowingly promoting a culture of bomb making.  But I do think the matter warrants a closer look, and at the very least, an examination of the potential consequences of the underlying algorithms.

So how do these two unconnected incidents relate to the prospect of an artificially generated stampede?

Here’s a hypothetical based on my hometown, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Heinz Field.

Let’s say that Primanti Brothers decided to give away free cheese steak sandwiches during the game.  As part of the promotion, they teamed up with WDVE 102.5, the official radio station and live game day broadcaster of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

@DVE loves our #Steelers!  Free cheese steaks for the next 102.5 seconds!  At all participating locations, including Heinz Field!!!

Consider a real-time blitz of push notifications (texts and email alerts) in tandem with social media postings on facebook, twitter and instagram.  Think about how such information would be received by fans inside the stadium.  Think about how such time-sensitive information would be interpreted by friends and family outside of the stadium who personally know someone at the big game.

Would they forward it?  Would they share it?  Would they hit a re-tweet button?

Would people question its authenticity?  Would they disregard it?  Or would they instinctively react?

And finally, does stadium security have a real-world contingency plan for this hypothetical?  If you think they do, well… I’ve got some bridges I’d like to sell you.  The Fort Duquesne, the Roberto Clemente and the Andy Warhol.

One last thing.  Regarding the example I cited.  There was no malicious intent.  No hacking.  No technical glitches.  No complex algorithms.  It was merely the wrong message at the wrong time.  Of course, something like this could NEVER happen.  Right?