Can anyone still remember in the eighties when we were all paranoid that the state was building databases on each of us, recording all of our personal information? “It’s like George Orwell’s 1984,” we cried, “Big Brother is truly watching us!”
Quite apart from uneasiness that an autonomous state could hold all of these records, there was a very real fear that this data might fall into the hands of insurance firms and private medical companies, to potentially be used against our best interests. We were up in arms, as I recall. Well, all of our likes and dislikes, our tastes and our opinions, have now been neatly fed into dozens of databases and – the biggest laugh – we did it all ourselves.
Of course, everybody likes to think that the internet represents the ultimate in freedom without boundaries, and most people probably imagine that it is too large to be effectively monitored. From a governmental perspective, this is probably true; the authorities generally have to collect data and input it manually and they rely on the honesty of the population – hence the shamefully appalling state of the records of the NHS, the DVLA and HMRC – but don’t think for even one moment that every supermarket in the country doesn’t know each and every purchase you’ve ever made and when and where you made it; and, of course, every shopping website you’ve ever used has a very clear idea of your tastes in literature and music.
That’s just shopping, though, and it isn’t really important, but the internet somehow makes people far more relaxed about revealing seriously intimate details about themselves and their family which they’d probably never think of revealing to, for example, a bank, a potential employer or a private health insurance company. You might be posting on your homepage, writing online to a friend, searching for an interesting item or contributing to a chat forum, but that data passes through many servers and all of it is recorded.
Facebook, to pluck an example entirely at random, has become an incredibly valuable property. It has, as one major investor, Microsoft, the world’s largest software company, which has a £149 million stake in it; and it recently gained a £283 million investment from Goldman Sachs, a global investment banking and securities firm. Now, a social networking site might, at first glance, seem to be an unlikely bedfellow for such a company, not least given the illusory value of a web-based firm which deals in nothing more than advertising. Having said which, that advertising is targeted – and you even get to take part in the filtering for that yourself: what a privilege!
But are these partners really investing in advertising? Perhaps, although to plough money into an industry with generally diminishing returns might seem a little odd. As an exercise in population research, however, social networking sites are a veritable mine of information. It might almost seem likely, to the more cynical amongst us, that these firms could be not so much investing as buying access to data. I wonder what other sorts of companies they have interests and investments in…
I’m not personally bothered: a brief trawl of the net will only reveal that I’m an utter cynic who doesn’t like much of anything except a few musicians, poets and authors who are either long-retired or dead, and that I indulge in a handful of activities which aren’t generally considered to be marketable, for various legal and moral reasons. I long for the day when I see an advertising campaign designed to target me but I’m quietly confident that it ain’t coming any time soon.
I am, however, concerned that each of us can now be almost reduced to a line of code detailing our tastes, our health, our family’s medical history, our political views, our occupations and our hobbies. If knowledge is power then we have armed these corporate leviathans to the teeth. In the early twenty-first century, it seems that we may each truly be nothing more than a number, albeit a number resulted from an incredibly complex set of algorithms.