They’re the tech-savvy junior employees of my ISP – and every other company whose website I visit – and they’re living (but imaginary) proof that we live in a surveillance economy. Society. We live in a society, not an economy.
You know all that stuff about Big Data? Internet giants tracking our every move? They’re that. Big Brother – Sister – Big Sibling is watching us.
Sometimes – I guess it depends on what I’m looking at online – they’re hatchet-faced apparatchiks of the Security State, and sometimes – yes, it definitely depends on that – they’re shocked and horrified elderly relatives who are disappointed in me. William, how could you look at – that?
The usual youngsters just nudge each other and snigger.
Returning us now to the real world, the question I’d like to pose is this.
They may not be standing behind me, my online observers, but they’re definitely there. In offices, behind screens, watching. Taking a break. Making coffee. Playing online games. Tweeting. Planning the weekend.
Sniggering. Nudging each other. Look what he’s on about this week. He’s talking about us.
So what do they officially do, these tech people, apart from sending cookies my way and taking down my IP address?
[That’s the right term, isn’t it? IP address? Make yourselves useful, peeps, and correct it if not.]
What they do, I suspect, is reduce me to a statistic. From my perspective, I’ve got people watching me online. From their perspective, they’ve got millions of people to watch online.
So they don’t deal with me personally. Instead, they draw up charts showing that – I don’t know, some percentage. Charts reducing me to a statistic. 30 per cent of Spanish women behave as I do, while 70 per cent don’t.
Sorry, I should explain that. With the help of a tech-enabled friend, I once delved into the data that my Significant [Online] Other held about me.
And found that the company closest to me, the biggest employer of watchers of me, had collated all my data, run a bunch of clever calculations … and concluded that I was a Spanish woman in my forties. I fitted that profile most closely. And no, I have no idea what I’d been buying to give them that impression.
Yes, and there’s something else. Every time I use my laptop to go online, a pop-up appears on the screen to warn me that people know I’m in Aldershot. To hide my location, I could sign up for … you know the rest. Dollar amount per annum for the premium service.
That pop-up is probably the least effective ad I have ever encountered. Total fail.
The Spanish-woman thing is true (there’s talk of the UK government appointing a regulator for online activity, and I’m getting my compliance in early) but the Aldershot pop-up hasn’t appeared for a while. That said – important background information – I’ve never even been to Aldershot, so far as I can remember. I live in Falmouth.
And now back to the blog post.
They reduce us to statistics, the better to up the response rate on their advertising and direct marketing.
If a double-figure percentage of Spanish women in their forties (not) living in Aldershot sign up to have their location concealed; well, that’s the important thing. Much more important than being right about my age, gender, interest in, um.
Here’s what I think. We should celebrate the glorious, saving incompetence of the technology industry.
We’re not under threat from people who watch our every move. We’re under threat from people who – at best (worst) – devise tools to capture (“capture” – they use that word, but in this context, it always makes me giggle) our every keystroke and then strip out the individuality to fit us into some vast database of simplistic demographic categories.
They’re human. Paradoxically. They’ve designed data-analytics processes that don’t think.
We should encourage them in their humanity.
[Hey, you. Yes, you. Take a break. It’s nearly lunchtime. Go early. The rest of this blog post will be here when you get back. Have a great weekend.]
And we should trust their analytics to miss the specifics of our lives.
Nobody and no machine looks at me and thinks: that isn’t what a Spanish woman looks like. Nobody and no machine takes a walk with me across Gyllyngvase Beach and thinks: this isn’t Aldershot.
Like people in ridiculously complicated spy/thriller movies, these are people who trust their technology.
These are machines that do what’s asked of them – they generalise.
They don’t need to get the detail right, did I say that?
If enough people sign up to have their locations concealed – and we’re all pretty tolerant of low-level tech-idiocies now, so never mind that we’re not in Aldershot – that’s what matters.
The other saving grace of technology – I’m not exactly repeating myself here – is that it’s designed and operated by people. Human beings. All that data analysis follows rules set by, I don’t know, Seattle-based twenty-somethings who don’t get out much.
Yes, of course that’s a caricature. But I’ve analysed the “reciprocal data” that all these ads represent, and I don’t think they’re put together by world-weary Old Europeans with part-time jobs training new recruits at the Aldershot Barracks in the proper use of castanets.
No wonder, despite all the Big Data and the Big Talk and the analytics and the surveillance and the online courses in marketing – no wonder my dreams of buying the perfect happiness-inducing gadget never seem to come true.
No wonder, despite the CCTV and the facial-recognition software and the surveillance and the spy movies and the harnessing-the-power-of-technology, there are still criminals who get away with it.
Move along, please. Nothing new here. Nothing new at all.
There are rules that are necessary. Do not jump in the deep end if you can’t swim. Do not steal my wallet.
And there are any number of rules that shouldn’t be rules. Shouldn’t be guidelines; should barely even be suggestions.
Take an ambition online, and you’ll find any number of guides to doing it. How to write, how to blog, vlog, reach number one, find your inner peace, write a bestseller, write a screenplay, market an online marketing course, make a fortune, get a job, how to get a better job, get a partner, get sex, love, money.
“If you can’t do it – teach it.” An old saying repurposed for the social-media age. We have the technology to reach the world with our writing, film-making, singing, music-making – and we sublimate our failure to launch by telling other people how to do what we want to do.
Most of those guides, these days, are written as listicles. Remember listicles? Used sparingly, on the covers of print magazines such as Cosmopolitan or Marie Claire, they were effective. Ten ways to do this, five ways to do that. Oh, and three ways to do the other.
I’m not saying that if you can’t write a bestseller, you shouldn’t write a guide to writing a bestseller. Okay. It’s a way to dream. And you can probably see how to do it as clearly as everybody else who can’t do it. If you can come up with a listicle – yeah, okay.
But the problem with using a how-to guide as your entry point to a creative activity is that they only ever describe what’s worked in the past. Yes, everybody looks to the past to work out what works.
But where’s the spontaneity? The creativity? If we’re all following rules, where’s the spark of originality?
Put that guide down. Try again. This time, do it your way.