Sunday, April 17, 2011

Big Brother, Sales Dept.

First, my apologies to all of my readers who are left, for not blogging last week. My wife went out of town and that disrupted all sorts of schedules, including the habit of updating my blog on Monday. She comes back this week and I hope that will help me get back to the usual routines.

The other day I had an experience which was not exactly creepy, but was well outside my usual range of experiences. Here’s how it went. For some years I have had a hankering for a bench grinder or motorized grinding wheel—one of those little jobbers with two abrasive wheels on the ends of a motor shaft where you can grind steel and other metals. The occasions I need such a thing are not many, but when you need a grinding wheel there are not a lot of other alternatives.

So I got online and looked around for grinding wheels, comparing prices, looking at features, etc. I do not spend a lot of time on this type of activity, and when I figured out that there are probably only one or two places in the world that make cheap bench grinders any more (both in China) and they sell the same basic thing to lots of retailers who put their own name and price on it, I stopped looking. The way our garage is jammed up with junk, there’s nowhere I could install a bench grinder right now anyway. So that was that—or so I thought.

A few days later, I was reading the website of a national political magazine that I also subscribe to. It has nothing to do with bench grinders. It’s a pretty lively website with nearly daily updates, and like most commercial websites it has advertising columns where all kinds of goods and services are for sale, many of which involve animations of women’s puffy bellies subsiding to svelte proportions. Needless to say, I just tune out these things when I’m interested in reading the website’s editorial content.

But this time, I noticed that right there next to what I was reading was not some sketch of a gal going from a size 30 to a size 4, but guess what?—Bench grinders! The very same ones I’d been checking out, in fact. This immediately gave rise in my soul to mixed emotions.

On the one hand, I’d rather have bench grinders on the periphery of my vision than distracting animations of bloated female flesh, or any of the other weird stuff advertisers have hatched to capture your attention for that fraction of a second which, multiplied by sixteen billion, means hard cash for the advertiser. So it was an improvement, scenically speaking.

But on the other hand, how did Magazine X, or its advertising firm, or the webmasters at the ad firm, or the purveyors of the bench grinders, or the Chinese wholesaler or manufacturer of the bench grinders, or Google, or whoever it was—how did they know I was looking at bench grinders a few days back?

Someone will perhaps say, “Oh, that’s just a cookie. Your browser ate a cookie and this is what happens.” Well, fine, but that doesn’t help me much in answering the question of who was responsible.

Transmute this experience to real life (as opposed to cyberspace, which, despite arguments to the contrary, lacks something of being the full equal of real life), and see how it sounds. Say you go into a hardware store one day and look at some bench grinders, without even talking to a salesperson. Then you get on a plane and fly 1500 miles to a different city. You need some money and go into a bank. While you’re waiting in line at the bank, a guy comes up to you wearing a lumpy trench coat, peels it open, and what has he got hanging inside? Bench grinders! “Wanna buy a bench grinder, Mr. Stephan?” he wheezes.

I don’t know about you, but it would creep me out to the extent I might call the cops. At the very least, I’d want to know how he found me, who he was working for, and what exactly the chain of causation was between my looking at bench grinders in City A on one day, and my being approached in City B several days later by a guy who knows for a petrified fact that I was looking for bench grinders earlier.

It’s gone beyond “caveat emptor”­—let the buyer beware. It’s now “caveat examinar”—let the browser (the person, not the software) beware. Anything you look at can be filed, compiled, bought, sold, and used to manipulate you later.

As invasions of privacy go, this was pretty minor. But there have been scams, often associated with pornographic websites, in which the fact that a person visits such a site is used to blackmail them in various ways. And even if what I’m looking at is perfectly legitimate, I resent the fact that somebody, or something, or some combination of persons and things, was spying on me as I looked at bench grinders, and used that information in a transfer that showed up in a completely unexpected context.

I would like to hear readers’ opinions about this sort of thing. Maybe you enjoy seeing your latest contemplated purchases plastered all over the next few websites you visit. Maybe you know exactly how this works and can explain it in non-technical language, and how to stymie it if you don’t like it. In any event, please let your opinions and thoughts be known. You will benefit more people than just me, and if you respond I’ll also know I haven’t lost all my readers by skipping a week.

1 comment:

  1. Abbie Hoffman wrote "Steal This Book," about various scams/flimflams and it needs to be updated with stories as yours.

    My somewhat related plan is to use the "cookies" registered voters in my candidate's district leave at each election - including their age, when they became registered voters (in this County), their address, whether they voted and, if the election was a primary (2 of the 3 biannual county elections are primaries), whether they voted Republican or Democratic (it's an open primary state, voters can decide in each primary which slate of candidates - Democrat or Republican) for which they can vote.

    My point is this info can be sliced and diced and downloaded onto an iPad so my candidate can stop the car anywhere in the district and start walking along - and at each house, have the profile of the voters (if any, lots of people do not even register to vote) pop up so the candidate has ideas of how to start the conversation and what points to make in the door-to-door that is still a staple of local, retail, electioneering.

    I guess, once we get used to it, it will not creep you out as much, similar to what happens at Amazon, when they know what you looked at and purchased, etc, etc.