Open-and-shut case

“Tai­lored” in­ter­net ad­ver­tis­ing seems un­com­fort­ably close to stalk­ing.

New Zealand Listener - - BACK TO BLACK - JOANNE BLACK

The Guardian colum­nist Ge­orge Mon­biot re­cently noted how few in­sects he sees in the gar­den nowa­days. He made the point that a new gen­er­a­tion does not know any dif­fer­ent and thinks the state of af­fairs in the back­yard is nor­mal, when ac­tu­ally there is a lot wrong with it. This ob­ser­va­tion has stayed in my mind. Partly, that is be­cause I, too, re­mem­ber reg­u­lar en­coun­ters with la­dy­birds, pray­ing man­tises, stick in­sects and monarch but­ter­flies, and had also no­ticed their al­most to­tal dis­ap­pear­ance from city gar­dens. But there is a wider point, too, which is that we of­ten ac­cept the sta­tus quo and do not think it could, or should, be dif­fer­ent.

I prob­a­bly should be think­ing about this as it re­lates to pol­i­tics, so­ci­ety or cul­ture, but I have ac­tu­ally been think­ing about pink suit­cases – well, re­ally, about in­ter­net ad­ver­tis­ing. A few days ago, I was on­line look­ing at a brand of lug­gage called Away, lured by a pic­ture of a pink suit­case. I mean, who wouldn’t like a pink suit­case? Oh, okay. Well, I would.

Soon af­ter­wards, I was on In­sta­gram and there very quickly ap­peared an ad for Away lug­gage. I found this slightly dis­turb­ing. Some­where in in­ter­net-land, there is a file on me that says I like pink lug­gage (and lots of other pink things) and have been to web­sites x, y and z. I know this is sup­posed to be “tai­lored ad­ver­tis­ing”, but to me it is stalk­ing. Wher­ever I go on the in­ter­net, I will be pur­sued by pic­tures of at­trac­tive young women tour­ing the world with pris­tine pas­tel suit­cases so pris­tine and pas­tel that they ob­vi­ously have never been through bag­gage han­dling at an air­port or stowed in the hold of a 747.

I started think­ing about how all of us now ac­cept this on­line in­for­ma­tion-shar­ing as nor­mal. In­ter­ested in how it works, I googled some key words. A Newsweek story with the head­line “… Five com­pa­nies owned by Face­book and how they use your in­for­ma­tion” came up. Think­ing that Newsweek had done my re­search for me, I was read­ing the story when what should pop up but an ad for Away lug­gage. Sud­denly, I no longer wanted a pink suit­case. At least, not from a com­pany that is fol­low­ing me around.

Through no choice, we seem to have ac­cepted a loss of pri­vacy as a trade-off for all that is “free” on the in­ter­net. I am sure there is a way to out­fox the tech com­pa­nies and ad­ver­tis­ers by play­ing with some of the set­tings on your com­puter. But that is not re­ally an op­tion for your correspondent, who is old enough to re­mem­ber la­dy­birds land­ing on her fin­ger on a warm sum­mer’s day.

The big­gest story in Wash­ing­ton DC right now is the mys­tery over the iden­tity of the “se­nior of­fi­cial in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion” who au­thored the anony­mous op-ed in the New York Times. The piece said that the of­fi­cial and oth­ers were work­ing to curb the worst ex­cesses of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump un­til he was out of of­fice. Trump has de­scribed the op-ed as trea­son, and a hunt is on in the White House to re­veal the writer.

Af­ter think­ing about the New York Times’ de­ci­sion to pub­lish the piece – and pos­si­bly to so­licit it in the first place – I can­celled my sub­scrip­tion to the news­pa­per. While read­ers and jour­nal­ists pre­fer quotes in a story to be at­trib­uted, some­times the promise to keep a source se­cret is the only way they will talk. Most of us un­der­stand that. But to hand over a whole opin­ion piece, with­out read­ers know­ing whose opin­ion they are read­ing, crossed a line for me.

White House staff have been fu­ri­ously deny­ing they wrote the piece, and pos­si­bly none of them did be­cause it may not have been a White House em­ployee. Then again, maybe it was. Maybe it was even one of the peo­ple who has de­nied writ­ing it. Who knows? Well, the New York Times knows, but in­stead of telling the pub­lic what the pub­lic wants to know, it is keep­ing it se­cret. This is not Water­gate and the Times did not break this story; it man­u­fac­tured it. The Times is los­ing its com­pass.

To hand over a whole opin­ion piece, with­out read­ers know­ing who wrote it, crossed the line for me.

“I’m sorry Jean­nie, your an­swer was cor­rect, but Kevin shouted his in­cor­rect an­swerover yours, so he gets the points.”

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