The Future is Even Creepier

There is an interesting story in today’s New York Times that brings together a couple of my recent topics, the tracking of internet users by the websites they visit and the use of the data thus generated in advertising, about which I wrote here, and the use of target-specific outreach and advertising by President Obama’s re-election campaign, about which I wrote here. There are even, for good measure, overtones of human dignity there.

The story is about the way the data gathered when we use the internet, whether just browsing or searching for something in particular, are then used to throw those annoying targeted ads at us wherever we go. The data is collected by computers of course; it is computer algorithms, too, that analyze it and use it to assign us to some fine-grained category (depending on our inferred interests and means); and it is still computers that sell the right to show us a display ad to companies that might be interested in the specific category of consumer each of us is deemed to belong to.

This is roughly similar, if I understand correctly, to what the Obama campaign did in studying the data it had collected about voters and using it to target each person specifically according to his or her likely interests and concerns, except that the field of application here is commerce rather than politics. And just as some people have doubts about the morality of that tactic in the political realm, there are those who are convinced that its application in the commercial one is immoral. The Times quotes a consumer-rights advocate as saying that “[o]nline consumers are being bought and sold like chattel [sic]. … It’s dehumanizing.” As with what the Obama campaign did, I’m not sure about that. I’m not convinced by the description of the process as selling people―it involves selling information about me, and the right to show me a message on which I remain free to act or not, not my personhood. I don’t feel dehumanized by those ads―just creeped out, which, I think, is a very human reaction, by the way (I doubt that cattle are creeped out by being sold).

Perhaps there is an echo here of the debate, in human dignity scholarship, over whether dignity and its violations are an objective matter, meaning that one’s dignity can be violated even though one doesn’t feel that it is ,or a subjective one, meaning that one’s perception is determinative. (A classic example of this problem is the controversy over dwarf-tossing: the dwarf consents to being thrown around for sport and makes money out of it―but can the state prohibit the activity regardless, on the ground that it is a violation of his dignity even if he doesn’t think it is?)

I should note one possible difference between what is happening in the commercial advertising context and what the Obama campaign did. The companies that track internet users claim that those whom they track are not identified in any recognizable fashion. When they sell the right to show me ads to advertisers, they might describe me as something like “the guy who reads legal blogs and news websites a lot and has been looking at cell phones recently.” The Obama campaign, of course, was identifying people by name, address, etc., in order to reach out to them. So maybe the internet-ad people are less creepy than the politicians. But maybe not. The Times’ article suggests people are very skeptical about the actual anonymity of internet users tracked by advertisers, so the difference might be illusory.

As I said above and in my previous posts, even if this is not immoral and/or illegal, it is creepy. Perhaps “do not track” features of internet browsers will save us from the onslaught of creepiness. But not only are advertisers trying to fight them but, as they are pointing out, their use might undermine the bargain at the foundation of the internet―in exchange for putting up with ads, we get to enjoy all sorts of great content (such as this blog, right?) for free. Perhaps we are now finding out that the bargain was a Faustian one. But it’s likely too late to get out of it.

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