I was driving down the highway in my spanking new car, minding my own business when I heard a sharp popping sound. Moments later I noticed a small crack in the middle of my windshield. The car is actually six months old but could pass off as new because it was absolutely blemish free. My son in law had lovingly got all the dents, bumps and scratches mended while I was away on a holiday. Since it was the first slur, it hurt more. Not sure whether the crack was a safety hazard, I reluctantly broke the news of the broken windshield on my family’s Whats App group. In a bid to exonerate myself I kept insisting that it wasn’t a pebble hit which would cause a plonk instead of the pop. “The sound was more akin to pressure release from a soda bottle”, I said. As expected I got the eye rolls, the LOLs and the sarcastic “There goes mummy again” from my children, both natural and acquired. The response isn’t entirely their fault though. I have the habit of starting any such misadventure report with, “ It is not my fault”.
But this high handed ‘ off-ish’ offspring behaviour is not what I intend to draw your attention to. This is just a prelude to my main concern. In the evening I got on Youtube to get my daily doze of laughs with Stephen Colbert and was greeted by an advertisement selling a DIY kit to repair broken windshields. I know, I know, targeted advertisement on electronic media is a modern day reality. Google a destination and your Facebook page is full of infomercials about hotels and flights to the place. Visit any online shopping site and they will continue to hound you holding up merchandise to your face each time you are on the net. Some will stuff your mailbox with special deals on the item you had checked out while others ask soul stirring questions, “ You came, you saw, you left…..why?”
Displaying merchandise to a targeted audience makes economic sense. But it feels creepy because targeting necessitates watching the target. Every move, every like and dislike is monitored. The search history is analysed for tastes & interests. And then algorithms workout advertisements relevant to the viewer. It feels creepier when I envision that on this World Wide Web which ties us ( in knots?), on one of the multitude of servers there is a minuscule space on the database dedicated to me that says that I am cynical, somewhat antiestablishment, have no particular religious leaning, am not an impulsive buyer, drool over melted cheese, love cinnamon doughnuts and follow US/ UK politics to console myself that ‘ruler’ stupidity is pervasive.
Meanwhile the race to obtain data is on. These ‘digital dictators’ are the attention merchants, we are the merchandise, not the customers. First they get our attention by offering a stage and free information and then we pay by paying attention to what they show us. Nothing is free. Watching these commercials is the price we pay to these search engines and social networking sites. I have reluctantly accepted this fact but this incident felt like a blatant invasion of privacy because it was a private conversation I was having with my family. It wasn’t a social platform. I might be getting paranoid and it could be a mere coincidence but it seemed sinister.
And now to end where I started. My son suggested that the ‘pop’ I heard could be due to the release of the accumulated tension of driving a ‘scratchless’ car! I will keep you posted if based on this information some entrepreneur tries to sell me anti anxiety medication, a subscription to a meditation programme or perhaps a great deal on a spa- holiday!
( published in my column in The Tribune on 21/9/19)