I am more than the sum of my datum

The internets know a bit about me. I’ve never made a particular effort to hide my online behaviors from the “powers that be” because, well, it’s not very interesting or particularly revealing. I’m also curious about for what all of this seemingly banal data might be used . I see the targeted ads, and they thus far prove that no one is really getting much from my data.  The Gmail personalized ads can be entertaining, but are generally nonsensical. Speeding ticket lawyer? Dog grooming? I have neither a car nor a dog. Hulu continues to ask me to “improve my ad experience,” but yet always shows me ads for Geico. No car, people!

Facebook ads are more likely to annoy me with their strange attempts to understand me. Often, there are ads for things that are clearly based on the fact that I am a woman of a certain age. Since I have no kids and no particular interest in toxic cleaning products, they are barking up the wrong middle-aged woman. One of my stated interests on Facebook is “rearranging furniture.” I therefore see a large number of ads for Italian furniture. Facebook has probably the largest cache of data about me, with hundreds of likes and thousands of posts. But it still doesn’t get me. And I don’t think it ever will.

People are too smart, complicated, weird, and unique to be understood my machines. It’s even a stretch for psychologists and sociologists to make accurate predictions about human behavior based on large quantities of data. I am probably considered “unconventional” in certain ways, but I doubt that even the most predictable, conventional, homogenous “normal” person can be pinned down.

Now even my iPhone is getting in on the data collection. With GPS and location-based apps, it always knows exactly where I am, and maybe even what I’m doing and with whom. But what does it really know? Does it know that I drank a green vitality smoothie for breakfast yesterday, and today I had an almond danish? Does it know that I normally go to yoga on Saturdays with a friend, but this week she had a cold so I went alone? Does it know whether I’m paying my bills or IMing with my aunt or reading the historic chess-related mystery novel a friend gave me? Does it know whether I do oil paintings or rebuild engines? Does it know about my hopes, dreams, and goals? Does it know whether I was at the Greek restaurant alone or with a date? Does it know whether I had the retsina or the rosé?

Everything I do in life and on the internet is based on a nuanced set of desires, goals, and sometimes fleeting necessities. My tastes are particular, and my behavior unique and ever-changing. The question here is whether more data out there in the world about my fluctuating reality will increase my self-knowledge and expand my horizons, or will it only serve to cram me into a more limiting target market?

4 Comments Add yours

  1. w says:

    The issue isn’t only one of data collection for advertising, in the sense of ‘what effect this actually has on me psychologically- does it know my desire before I do?’.
    Facebook ‘users’ for instance, are actually its product. http://www.bookforum.com/blog/10150 See the essay ‘Facebook as surveillance tool’ for an articulation of this position. But I suspect this will also be met with “eh, so what?”


    1. kittyireland says:

      I think this ‘produsers’ model is kind of fascinating. Those of us who use networks like facebook are not only its product, but the unpaid source of all of its useful content. It strikes me that this puts facebook in a fairly vulnerable position. I mean, what if we all left? Unlike paid workers, we can’t be replaced.


  2. w says:

    I the idea that everyone who uses FB would suddenly leave en masse is nice as a thought experiment, but it would never happen– and the revenue generated by FB for its creators has already “paid” for itself, so even if FB becomes “obsolete”, then it wouldn’t really matter. FB is not in a vulnerable position, and for some people, I imagine using FB is now compulsory.


  3. kittyireland says:

    For its creators, yes. MZ will not be worrying about income anytime soon. But the company? I think the IPO debacle shows weakness there.


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