Sunday, October 5, 2008

I have seen the future.

When I teach my Internet class and discuss cookies, I use this analogy: Imagine if you went to the grocery store to buy some soda and you walked to the usual spot in the back of the store and got the soda and went back up front to pay; but the next time you entered the store, the soda was right up front near the check-out lane, that's what cookies can do. They allow websites to track your movements and to redesign their pages to accommodate your interests.

So I was listening to a show on NPR today (don't know what show, I think it was Fresh Air Weekend, but it was similar to this topic) about data mining and consumer tribes and other stuff and I started to wonder how soon the cookie effect will migrate to digital television and even libraries.

I already wonder how soon it might be before your Internet and my Internet are different. I mean, if Yahoo! had my data, then why would they need a cookie to customize their front end to match my interests? How soon until the whole Internet arranges itself to show me only the stuff that it thinks I want to see?

The same with digital television: how soon until I turn on NBC at 7:00 pm and see an ad for a political candidate that is tailored to my particular fears? Let's say that the Republicans and Democrats know that I'm more concerned about the economy than I am about health care, how easy is it for them to use a digital signal to send one targeted commercial to my TV at the same time they send a different commercial to yours? The candidates can just spend a day recording all different phrases which could be stitched together into virtually limitless ads which get sent out to individual viewers based on this data. Do they know who we are? Even if you have cable, is there some unique digital fingerprint attached to each television? If not now, could there be in the future?

I wonder how soon it will be until everything can be customized by the data provider, and completely out of my control?

The only solution I see is to screw with the data by swapping grocery lists with a friend or watching your TV shows in their living room. Then the location data gets distorted...until the computers throw out the anomalous data. Because you can't fool a computer.

Soon most libraries will move to put RFID tags in books and even to using smart library cards, and any data you'd want to gather could be collected. What do libraries want to know? How long did the customer remain in the library? What aisles did he visit? Did he do number one or number two in the bathroom? What books did he touch after doing number two and not washing his hands?

I think this digital age is a great time to be working in libraries. I can't wait until I have the power to track our patrons' movements and to sell that information to the highest bidder. Republicans? Democrats? Did you hear me? I'll tell you anything you want to know for the ambassadorship to the UK: that's right, Robert Tuttle, your days are numbered.