Remember When the Internet Was Anonymous?

Today marks four years since I started this blog. Seems like just yesterday. Thank you all who have read this blog and taken the time to comment. I know that I don’t post as often as I used to, but I’ve got a few big projects I’ve been working, and I’m going to share one of them with you very shortly. In the meantime, enjoy this post.

The Director was sitting in his office, enjoying a pumpkin spice latte. He did not like pumpkin flavor, but it was the law of the land that pumpkin flavor must be consumed in the fall.

There was a knock at the door and an intern entered.

“Sir, I’m sorry to bother you. But do you remember when we demanded that all social media websites turn over all of the personal information and preferences of their users? Well now they say they are not producing the information.”

“They’re not? I was afraid of this. All right, time for Plan B.”

“Sir, you don’t mean…”

“Oh, yes, I do. House calls.”

The media at first was skeptical of the government’s new program, whereby they sent government agents to canvass the neighbors, door to door, asking the inhabitants for their personal information. Many pundits thought it an intrusion on people’s privacy, while others thought it a patriotic duty and a chance to expose themselves to some new germs.

Analysts on both sides, however, agreed that people would not want to reveal their personal information to an agent of the government who showed up at their doorstop uninvited and in most cases without even a bottle of wine or piece of fancy cheese wrapped up in nice paper.

So they were really surprised by the responses. People provided their names and ages, of course, and their email addresses and phone numbers, and where they like to shop, and what they think about the things that other people’s kids do, versus the things that their own kids do. They asked about music tastes and food tastes and whether they were more likely to choose a table or a booth when offered both at a diner.

The program was so successful and the responses so thorough, that the government turned it into a reality tv show.

“You know, usually I go for the booth. If I’m offered both, I go for the booth.”

“So you’d classify yourself as booth in response to question 19a?”

“Well, now, sometimes I don’t feel like a booth. I gotta be honest, I like booths. But sometimes – I don’t know – I just feel like a table.”

“So would you classify yourself as a hybrid booth/table? There’s a choice for that.”

“Well, you know,” he says with his finger in his mouth, and looking up at the ceiling. “Now that I think about it a little more, I’m not sure if I ever chose a table over a booth when offered both. I think I was thinking of something that happened to my mother. Maybe I really am a booth guy after all.”

In fact, so effective was the government program that the social media websites started offering the government money for the personal data of the citizenry, in hopes of offering content that would attract more viewers. The official answer was no, but then some Congressmen and Senators got into a bit of hot water over selling of personal data to social media companies, and had to do penance by reciting the 80s pop hit single “Safety Dance” a cappella, including all of the instrumental sounds, before every session of Congress.

Remember When You Needed a Cell Phone to Record Someone in Public?

The good folks over at Google have invented something truly spectacular—a pair of eyeglasses with a small computer screen mounted on one of the lenses so that the user can have all the advantages of a smartphone without the inconvenience of having to take it out of a pocket and tap a touchscreen.  It is called the Glass.  At last we can search for cat videos while windsurfing.

Photo by tedeytan via flickr
Photo by Ted Eytan via Flickr

As I save my nickels against the expected $1,500 price tag, I note with not a small amount of incredulity that not everyone is looking forward to the Google Glass.  The product is still months away from being released to the general public, but already has been banned from a Seattle bar and the roadways of Virginia, on concerns of privacy and distraction, respectively.

Privacy?  Distraction?

Think about how wonderful it will be when you can photograph someone in a supermarket without having to pretend to make a phone call, putting the silent phone to your ear and turning sideways, estimating where the lens is focusing, faking your end of a conversation (“Yeah, I know…This is now two weeks they don’t have shredded cabbage”), checking if the photograph was too blurry or if you missed the target, and repeating as necessary without blowing your cover.  A person should not have to go through so much work.

With the Google Glass, you can just look at someone and take a photograph.  When you see someone wearing white after Labor Day, your friends won’t have to take your word for it.  When you’ve sculpted your mashed potatoes into a likeness of Karl Marx, you can take a memento without looking weird in front of the other diners.

And why does the media always emphasize the negative aspects of distraction?  Until Google Glass is in stores, if someone is telling you a boring story, you have to pretend to listen by concentrating on the space between their eyebrows or on the way their mouth moves.  When you’ve got Google Glass on your eyes, you can read Moby-Dick and when you laugh at the funny parts, the person will think you’re enjoying their story.

Of course establishments that don’t see these advantages and are so obsessed with antiquated notions like privacy will prohibit people from wearing the Google Glass on the premises.  The inventors will be forced to conceal the Glass in a better place, like in a person’s hair, or in their nostrils where the Glass could be loaded with a Flonase app during allergy season. Workers will wonder why some patrons are always tilting their heads back and scanning the room with their nostrils, and perhaps think it some new neck exercise.

And when new barriers to the Glass arise, such as hair and nostril searches, or people who are bald or who can’t stop sneezing, Google will have no choice but to locate the Glass where it should have been all along—resting up against our eyes like contact lenses.  Everyone will be able to walk around, without any electronics showing, but with a data screen in their field of vision.  Like the Terminator.

To take a photograph you’ll need only scratch the side of your face, and a video will start recording at a mere throat clearing.  Internet searches can be triggered by just asking a rhetorical question, like “What is gluten anyway?”

And as the photographs and videos and data are uploaded, humanity will finally have what it has been working towards since people started making wedge-like shapes in clay tablets thousands of years ago:  One shared brain, under Google, with liberty and justice for all.

Remember When You Didn’t Have to Worry About Online Tracking?

I recently read an article about how companies track Internet searches to aid in marketing of products and rejection of credit applications.  It is certainly easy to see what banks will do with credit applicants who search for “do I have to pay my mortgage,” or what life insurers will do with policy applicants who search for “skyscrapers that let you bungee jump.”

But Internet searches do not always fall into such neat categories.  What will companies make of someone who searches for how long mayonnaise can stay on the counter before it can no longer be served to his in-laws?  Or who trolls YouTube for the opening credits to the 1980s cartoon “He-Man and Masters of the Universe”?  Or who wants to know if Marilyn Manson is really the same guy who played Paul Pfeiffer on “The Wonder Years”?  (For the record, he is not.)

I can see the corporate scientists in the laboratory now.  There is a monitor showing me sitting at my computer, searching for the video of “The King Is Half-Undressed,” the hit single by the 1990s pop band, Jellyfish.

“What is he looking at?” asks the Google overlord to his underling at the monitor.

“Well, sir, he’s watching a Jellyfish video.”

“Like one of those squishy things at the beach?”

“No, sir.  Jellyfish the West Coast pop band that, true to its name, was short lived yet influential.”

“What’s with all the tambourines?  Every member of the band has a tambourine.  There’s even a tambourine coming out of that guy’s head.”

“I think it’s supposed to be a conceptual video, sir.  How shall we proceed?”

“Charge him an extra three points on his mortgage,” says the overlord, taking a sip from his coffee mug that says “World’s Best Dad” and shifting focus to a monitor focused on someone searching for videos of people falling down the stairs.

What will health insurance companies make of my visits to the Internet Movie Database, where I’ve analyzed the career paths of the actors who starred on the Nickelodeon sketch-comedy show “You Can’t Do That On Television”?  Perhaps they will call it a pre-existing condition, and raise my co-pays for hospital stays and prescriptions for green slime.

Perhaps this is all for the better.  Perhaps online search tracking will enable companies to bring us better products.  Perhaps one day I’ll finally come home to a cat that plays the piano.

A positive use of online tracking would be to tell us what our friends have been searching for.  Then we would know what to buy them for their birthdays.  Maybe one day I’ll sign in to Facebook and get a reminder that it’s so-and-so’s birthday, along with a note that so-and-so is really interested in action figures that don’t melt in the microwave.

Of course, the real issue with online tracking is privacy.  No one wants to go through cyberspace labeled as someone who likes hats and pictures of skin diseases.  And I’m sorry, but it is no one’s business if you need to know how much Jennifer Aniston spent on cereal last month.

So I’m confident that Congress will move heaven and earth to pass an online privacy law that will be thousands of pages long and will do absolutely nothing to stop online tracking.  But maybe the law will make the companies at least tell us why we’re suddenly being sent samples of mayonnaise that do not need to be refrigerated.