Rockwell had no idea

You are being watched. You might think you aren’t but you are.

I’m not talking about security cameras of which there are an astounding number: reported in 2010 on a five year-old study done by the New York Civil Liberties Union which counted 4,176 in Manhattan below 14th street. That’s 4,176 concentrated in one-sixth of the island. The same article reported “The initiative [in NYC] is based on London’s Ring of Steel, which launched in the 1990s in response to IRA bombings. Britons may be the most videotaped people on earth. London has some 500,000 security cameras, while Great Britain as a whole has about 4 million.”

Think about that for a minute: that’s 4 million cameras in an area smaller than the state of Oregon. Security cameras aren’t just the province of big cities any more. Speed cameras, toll booth cameras, even cameras at the fast food drive through can all be used to observe your movements. But this isn’t what I mean when I say “you’re being watched.” I mean something even more insidious. I’m talking about your filter bubble.

Wikipedia defines the filter bubble as “…a concept developed by Internet activist Eli Pariser in his book by the same name to describe a phenomenon in which websites use algorithms to selectively guess what information a user would like to see based on information about the user like location, past click behavior and search history. As a result websites tend to show only information which agrees with the user’s past viewpoint.”

Pariser’s book and website provide more insight into not only how Google and other entities track your behavior online but how the smallest interaction with an add, link, or seemingly unrelated site can accrete to form what may or may not be an accurate picture of who you are and how that picture will influence in the future what messages you see.

Contemplate an Internet where ads pop up on unrelated sites simply because you visited a merchant’s website at some point in time.

Or how about a world in which search isn’t neutral but tailored specifically to what the algorithm thinks you want to see.

Imagine a political campaign where the messages are so micro targeted that you never actually get a full picture of the candidate’s positions, only message tailored to your interests designed to sell the candidate to you.

I didn’t notice the filter bubble in effect until after I read Pariser’s book but once I started looking for it I could see it everywhere: when I search for political topics or news stories Google serves me results from particular sources slanted toward what I normally read online and quite often those results are neither the freshest or most complete; when I visit a merchant’s website invariably that merchant’s advertising shows up on other sites powered by Google ads; and then there is the fact that Google reads my gmail.

Over the weekend I emailed a friend/former coworker to follow up on a remark she made to me while we were socializing at dinner on Friday. She highly encouraged me not to just quit my demeaning, frustrating job at which I have been totally marginalized and specifically told that I am not allowed to use anything but the barest range of my skill set. No, she said, make sure you have some place to go to before you leave.

Since there was beer involved, and since I am completely exhausted pretty much all the time now, I wasn’t thinking as quickly as I should so Saturday morning this is part of what I wrote to her:

My point about “just away,” which I was not expressing well thanks to the uberpils, is that if I were in a romantic relationship where I was being gaslighted (I don’t remember things correctly), jerked around (No, I can’t have a clear definition of my role.), marginalized (So, my work assignments are things that no one gives a cr*p about and that offer no value to the American public thereby negating the whole idea of “public service.”), patronized (I’m supposed to take career and technical direction from people that don’t understand the fundamental principles of web communications? Seriously?), and just generally aggravated (I wasn’t kidding: I’ve woken up angry and thinking about work every. single. morning. for the past month. This sh*t is getting old.) on this scale no one would be saying to me “Don’t leave until you’ve found someone else to be with.”

Right after I sent that message gmail served up this advertisement:

Now tell me, how long do you think it’s going to be before I start seeing ads for relationship counselors all over the Internet? I suspect I’ll start seeing them sometime within the week.

If you’re interested in searching where you aren’t tracked try or learn visually about how your filter bubble works.

Blog title gleefully swiped from Rockwell’s 1984 single “Somebody’s Watching Me


  1. So sorry to still hear about the professional situation. Here at *big technology company* things are no better. Despite being listed as one of the top 100 places to work in the US for the last 10 years we are hopeless inept at looking at the big picture, working collaborative, or effectively serving our customers needs/best interests. *le sigh*

    Regarding the filter-bubble … I have continuously turned off all advertising while online. I never see Google ads in my Chrome browser – or on anyone’s web-page. It’s true – the info I search for might (is) skewed to where I’ve been in the past … which is bad if you’re looking to understand the other side … but ahhhh the bliss about having no ads on any web-page or “at-home” in my GMail.

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