About those ad words – can we outsmart them? Just read an approving and syndicated Times article about the latest data-driven tech that uses what we access online to present us with more of the same. Given my predilection to write e-mails about the age-related technology space, the all-knowing Google regularly presents me with ads for products based on the messages I send and receive. Some ads are for vendors who are my clients, none of them are my suppliers. As is typical, I don’t notice for a while and then – in a flash, out of the corner of my eye, I see – duh, there’s a pattern here. So I do what you all should do regularly – tell Google these not only aren’t relevant, YOU are not who they think you are, you are someone else. You can opt out – but, sigh, "Google may still show relevant ads based on the content of a web page" that you are viewing. But it will not ‘collect’ your interest-based information to show you more relevant content. Whew. By looking at your ads preference manager page, you can, however, change your demographic profile – making yourself older/younger than you actually are (or what Google thinks you are). This may be a wise move.
The new data-driven wave – what are the downsides? Netflix is a good example of a site that thinks it knows you and regularly makes recommendations based on what you’ve watched – if you have eclectic taste, let’s just say that following those recommendations might be downright silly. I watched a documentary one day about Scrabble competitions, so naturally, I should be shown a preference for a movie about people who dress up like superheros. Of course. Like Google and the healthcare sector, Netflix is watching your behaviors, and – as with Google – you can end-run it, override and go look for something that it does not recommend that you see. But alas, turns out that you aren't so smart. Says Netflix, "three-quarters of what people watch now come from such recommendations." Let's follow that logic to Google Ads, travel and restaurant recommendations, Amazon book suggestions, etc. So our world gradually becomes a narrowing set of concentric interest circles that we break out of only 25% of the time. It’s one thing to make a restaurant recommendation based on where you’re standing. It’s quite another to make assumptions about what you want to eat based on where you ate before, what you want to read, buy, etc, based on what you read or bought.
As the population ages, what seemed useful may become worrisome narrow-casting. Beyond obnoxious, the trend of using data-sifting software that is 'helping' us find what we would most want to know is a nightmare-to-be. It can shut our unwitting selves off from knowing new ideas, finding new contacts, grasping concepts or making purchases that are in opposition to our shopping and movie-watching patterns. We are entering a world in which browsing physical book collections is obsolete -- and the 'world’s largest bookstore' is too big to browse anyway. Though whether it is a monopoly seems only in reference to price, not so far, in terms of selection, which is a genuine crowd-think problem. So you like an author? How about seeing what everyone likes who also liked that author? If you agree, you reinforce the data-driven assumption that you really aren't open to anything new. Now, recognizing that your own personal data is leaving town along with your preferences, startups are emerging that help you lock it up to be shared only with those you trust. Nice. Protecting your search privacy is not the default, it now requires deliberate action and vigilance.
Bring back rebellion – opt out online and avoid superficial preference-based stereotypes. Why? This reminds me of those long-ago radical moments when my peers and I would march around believing ourselves to be quite unique, outside the culture and politics of the time, wearing our opt-out, tune-out clothing and hairstyles, bathed in the glow of smug, and in reality, just like everyone else. (How funny, this time is now preserved on Wikipedia!) Perhaps in our later decades, we should try another form of protest -- this time, online – saying no, that’s not who we are, that's not what we think, that's not what we’ll buy or where we’ll eat. We want to do something different today. You have it wrong – now get lost -- go profile someone else.