There’s a great bit in NBC sitcom Parks & Recreation where April Ludgate, the office intern, tries to explain to Libertarian-like Parks Director Ron Swanson about cookies (“So it learns information about me?”) The scene ends with Swanson pitching his desktop in the garbage bin after looking himself up on Google Earth.
It’s a nice illustration of a question we need to ask ourselves as technology gets better and better at tracking our online lives: do the digital breadcrumbs we leave, and the prompts and recommendations they elicit, give us more control of our lives or less?
Swanson probably wouldn’t agree, but I certainly love it when Facebook reminds to wish a friend a happy birthday or Netflix gives me a heads up that my favorite Wes Anderson movie is now available. But at what cost?
According to SXSW Interactive presenter Ben Essen, head of digital planning for Isis London, the average number of data collections per Web page increased from 50 in 2011 to 100 in 2012. That means that every time you visit your favorite search platform or online retailer there are up to 100 different interests tracking your every click, hoping to glean some information that will help them market their products, either to you directly or to groups of consumers like you. Essen estimates that the nation’s largest digital market analytics firms have as much as 1500 pieces of unique data on the average U.S. resident.
This practice isn’t new, of course; marketers have always gathered customer research and used it to try and convince people to purchase products or services. It’s just that the Internet has dramatically increased the amount of information they have access to.
The good news is that your computer, and the information it connects you to, can’t make decisions for you (at least for now). You may need to sharpen your mass media BS detector and be conscious of the source when considering online recommendations, but don’t “pull a Swanson” and disconnect yourself from the digital world quite yet. Ultimately, the choice of what you buy, what you watch, and who you reach out to on their birthday is still yours.