26 July, 2017

The Excesses of Advertising

Or "Shared Endorsements"

Maybe it's not so strange that this is the second post in a row on this blog on the subject of advertising (and I swear it has nothing to do with me watching Mad Men - as the internet has changed everything in this field), but it seems pretty ironic to me, because it's not something I concern myself with very much. Until lately, I guess.

You see, a lot of people complain about companies violating your privacy online. I've always maintained a fairly liberal approach to the sharing of information. Perhaps I've been naive - I mean, I know information of any kind can be abused, but I genuinely think these companies are just pursuing their commercial agenda - to increase profits. Not that that, by itself, is a good thing (I am anti-capitalist), or doesn't involve a lot of potential harmful side effects, just that it doesn't necessarily mean that they're maliciously trying to screw us over. And, frankly, I like getting targeted ads about things I've searched for and am interested in.

But I just got a Walmart ad on my Facebook page for something my roommate googled (anonymously, by the way) on her phone earlier in the day. And this might just be the last straw. See, I don't mind the internet sending me targeted ads based on my interests. What I don't want is it sending those ads that are meant for me, to somebody else. Even if it's because we used the same internet connection. People share internet connections all the time. It doesn't mean that I want what I do on the privacy of my own computer to be shared among the "household" (especially if that household includes the apartment across the hall, or everybody else leeching off of a communal wifi hotspot).

And, I mean, you can go through and turn off a bunch of settings on this or that service (provided you can figure out who the offender is - is it Walmart? Is it Facebook? Is it Google?). But how can you possibly know that you're not missing something? Besides, what I'm really concerned about is not the behavior on my screen, but the behavior on somebody else's screen, and I can't change their settings. I don't actually want to change how the company caters their service to me, I just want to make sure that information isn't leaking out somewhere it doesn't belong. In other words, I don't necessarily want to stop getting ads, I just want to stop my ads from being sent to other people. I tell you, I have half a mind to stop using Google altogether and instead choose a different, more obscure search engine with a better reputation for privacy and anonymity (hello, DuckDuckGo).

Look, I'm an open and honest guy. I'm also guarded - I don't open up to just anyone (my semi-anonymous internet life notwithstanding). But I view honesty and transparency as a virtue in and of itself. I'd love to live in a world where nobody has any secrets because nobody needs to have any secrets - because everybody accepts each other for who they are. But that's not the world we live in. I don't want my neighbors potentially knowing intimate details about my life - like, say, medical conditions I might have, or some of my more fringe sexual interests (especially in this backwater, conservative community) - because I searched for related items on Google or other sites.

I've always been of the opinion that I don't care if some faceless goon in a warehouse on the other side of the planet knows certain details about my life in order to better direct relevant ads to me as part of some impersonal, corporate strategy. But I don't want people I run into in my daily life - whether they're people I know, but haven't opened up to the point of telling my deepest, inner secrets to, or strangers who have no business knowing that much about me in the first place - having access to any of this private information. See, it's not my concern that these companies collect this information. That's natural. It's my concern who they give it to. And until now, I thought that only included shadowy government organizations, in cases that are probably more or less warranted (no, I don't trust the government, but I'm also a realist - I know they're not out to get me). But now, it's personal. Consider the camel's back broken.

P.S. I like the conveniences of the modern web, but this is beginning to get ridiculous. I posted an image to Facebook recently, and the site automatically attached my real name to my face. I didn't approve of this. I deleted the tag, of course, but that doesn't change the fact that some machine out there has the ability to identify pictures of me on sight - a machine that knows my real name, and god knows what else it may have gleaned from scanning my Facebook account (at the very least).

Although, again, I'm very open in my life - I don't broadcast, because not everyone wants to know (and this information isn't appropriate in all situations), but I wouldn't hide the fact that I like to pose for pornographic pictures from anyone if they asked me directly. I just don't want random strangers on the internet, who I might enjoy having an anonymous "acquaintanceship" with online, to necessarily have my real name, home address, and social security number without me volunteering that information (which I would normally only give to people I trust on a case by case basis).

I guess you could say I'm having mixed feelings about the personalization of the internet. There are definite advantages, but drawbacks too. I'd like to be able to trust that mankind will approach these changes with dignity and respect, but I know too much about human nature to convince myself of that delusion. At any rate, it's an interesting time to be alive. For better or worse.

P.P.S. At the intersection of targeted advertising and facial recognition, I was googling (oops, my mistake) facial recognition technology and I came across this chilling gem: "Microsoft has patented a billboard that identifies you as you walk by and serves ads personalized to your purchase history." Great, so, now when I'm walking down the street I can have the fact that I recently bought adult diapers (not really, but it's a plausible and embarrassing scenario) broadcast on a huge screen for everyone in the vicinity to see. Horrifying.