I'm Just a Thing on the Internet

2016-12-02

Most people have no idea how the web works and don't understand the role they play in the web ecosystem. Partly this is because our mental model of the web dates back to the early days of "Web 1.0", when folks used the web to read physics papers and personal weblogs and such, somewhat as they would visit their local public library and read books and magazines and newspapers sitting on the shelves. My, how times have changed!

Imagine that when you walk into your local public library, ten or twenty people at the door note your presence (including a personal identifier such as your driver's license number) on clipboards. These people - we'll call them trackers - then follow you around during your visit. As you look in the card catalog, visit different parts of the stacks, pick books off the shelf, read specific articles in various newspapers and magazines, glance at specific advertisements in those periodicals, and so on, the trackers make detailed notes about everything you do and immediately sell that information to their customers (who aren't at the library but have a keen interest in your behavior). Based on your activities, the trackers helpfully suggest books you might want to buy and articles you might want to read. Sure, some of these suggestions take the form of shouting in your ear or pushing various materials in front of your face - and, confusingly, often several trackers will suggest things at the same time - but their suggestions are so helpful that you hardly notice. The materials they suggest feature lurid titles and racy photos. If you take the bait and read these materials, the trackers record that fact and again sell this information to their customers (who have a keen interest in whether you are interested in topics like money, drugs, sex, celebrities, and politics). Every time you visit the library, the trackers are there to record your every move.

But the trackers are not just at the library. When you shop at the grocery store or the department store or the mall, the trackers are there, too - noting where you shop and what you buy, making more helpful suggestions, and of course telling their customers about your activities. Same thing when you take a trip, look at map, go out to eat, stop at the gym, take a walk or a run, visit the doctor, meet a friend for coffee, chat on the phone, or send some family photos to your mom - the trackers are there, helping you on your way and noting everything you say and do.

Eventually, the trackers build up huge binders of information about you, and come to know you better than you know yourself. They tell all their customers (for a fee) about how often you exercise, what you eat, what you read, what you buy, how much you spend, where you go, who you talk with, etc. Their customers provide even more help to you in your busy life: they send you coupons, tell you about sales and special deals, give you discounts on your insurance, offer you magazine subscriptions, send you free advice about everything from health to money to relationships, and so much more.

Now, it's true that sometimes your friends know you better than you know yourself, too. But the trackers and their customers are not your friends. To you, they're total strangers. And to them, you are just a thing to keep track of, as they would keep track of a product being shipped across the country. In fact, to them you're not a person, you're a product.

We talk a lot these days about the Internet of Things, and I work in that area myself. We talk a lot less, if at all, about the fact that for marketers and search engines and social networking services and consumer-oriented conglomerates, the Internet enables them to treat human beings like you and me as just a bunch of things.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal