It’s been hard to make a living as a journalist in the 21st century, but it’s gotten easier over the last few years, as we’ve settled on the world’s newest and most lucrative business model: invasive surveillance. News site webpages track you on behalf of dozens of companies: ad firms, social media services, data resellers, analytics firms — we use, and are used by, them all.
For years, as a regular writer at Wired, I watched this system grow up with unease. I watched more companies put tracking cookies and scripts in every article I wrote. As my career went on, that list kept getting longer. Unlike most of the people I worked with at Wired, I understood the implications of what we were doing. Most journalists have no idea how extensive the system their readers are sold into is, but I have no such excuse. Long before I was a journalist, at the very dawn of the era of the web, I worked in database marketing — what’s more commonly called analytics now.
I got into it from the internet side, but for marketers who built databases of consumer information, the web was love at first sight. The introduction of the browser cookie was a transcendent moment in data collection. It was like the first time a kid at Hogwarts used their wand. You knew it was big, but how big? All you could say is “This will be bigger than I can imagine now.” — and that’s what I told people.
I had a bright career in front of me. We no longer had to track people by demographic data; we could track everything. I could build your life up individually in the database, I could use everything you did to shape a message that could transcend merely appealing to you. I was at a small horrible company to begin with, but I started getting calls from major corporations, and interest from Madison Avenue firms. And then I snapped. I couldn’t stand what I was about to do to the world.
Six months later I was waiting tables in Florida. I was broke, but I didn’t hate myself. Now 20 years and several careers on, I wonder if I should.
The thing is: I quit, but no one else did. They continued to weave this great net, and catch everyone in it.
In 1996, I left technology and internet work altogether for a few years. I used to tell people, “we know what you had for breakfast, and we know what you’ll want for lunch.” I would tell them how completely tracked they were, but no one believed me. People dismissed me as a crank, but I’d done that work myself. I’d been gathering their data. The surveillance data we gathered then is like a few drops in today’s ocean.
In the early 2000s, still trying to deal with what was happening, I decided to believe we could live without privacy, that radical openness was preferable to the quiet violence of perfect surveillance. That didn’t work either. It was better than ignorant surveillance, but it didn’t solve the problem of control.
The net was a perfect metaphor for what we were building. A net defines your range of action.
Here’s the thing about my career in the 90s, and building systems of online surveillance and control: I discovered that I am very good at it. Scary good enough that I promised I would put it out of my mind, and never do it. Sometimes I thought about the life I could have lived doing that work, but I know I couldn’t have lived with myself in that industry.
Then I helped build it all anyway.
I run a browser plugin called Noscript, and another called Ghostery. I don’t recommend them, not because they aren’t good, but because they turn web browsing into a part time job. No one has time to deal with these things. In order to not be tracked, you have to constantly be paying attention to what every page is doing. As the years passed at Wired I watched the list of third-party scripts and cookies grow in my little Noscript window. And it wasn’t just Wired, by any means; every news outlet slowly became an anchor of internet surveillance at the behest of the data warehousers and advertisers who became the news industry’s only path to survival in the 21st century.
I would look at it occasionally and think about what I could do with that data, the data I knew was out there.
I could build a dossier on you. You would have a unique identifier, linked to demographically interesting facts about you that I could pull up individually or en masse. Even when you changed your ID or your name, I would still have you, based on traces and behaviors that remained the same — the same computer, the same face, the same writing style, something would give it away and I could relink you. Anonymous data is shockingly easy to de-anonymize. I would still be building a map of you. Correlating with other databases, credit card information (which has been on sale for decades, by the way), public records, voter information, a thousand little databases you never knew you were in, I could create a picture of your life so complete I would know you better than your family does, or perhaps even than you know yourself. I could accurately diagnose you with mental illnesses, for instance — behaviors that correlate to bipolar, depression, addiction, and so on. I could understand you like no lover ever did, and you would never know I was there. While I could pull you individually out of that database, the real magic is that I would never have to. I could let algorithms understand you, process you, follow you, and never have to know any of you myself. You would be tracked and described by a thousand little bots you could never see.
But this isn’t the Holy Grail of my surveillance capability. What I’d do next is: create a world for you to inhabit that doesn’t reflect your taste, but over time, creates it. I could slowly massage the ad messages you see, and in many cases, even the content, and predictably and reliably remake your worldview. I could nudge you, by the thousands or the millions, into being just a little bit different, again and again and again. I could automate testing systems of tastemaking against each other, A/B test tastemaking over time, and iterate, building an ever-more perfect machine of opinion shaping. But I left before it really got good. So I don’t know for sure that this is what is being done with the vast data being collected about you, but there were plenty of smart people in that business, some of the most creative and innovative minds I ever met.
Your internet experience isn’t the main result of algorithms built on surveillance data; you are. Humans are beautifully plastic, endlessly adaptable, and over time advertisers can use that fact to make you into whatever they were hired to make you be. I still get kind of goosebump-y thinking about it sometimes. There’s a little evil voice in me somewhere that whispers “people make the best toys of all.”
I did not do this. Instead, over the years, I only enabled others to do it, as some small salve to my conscience. In fact, I made a career out of explaining surveillance and security, what the net was doing and how, but on platforms that were violating my readers as far as technically possible.
In all honesty, I don’t know what to do about this. Even if I could make my entire living crowdfunding, the only platforms with the social reach to tell people about surveillance and control are those which are also enabling it. And so, I am trapped in the net with you, still building the machine I tried to run away from nearly 20 years ago.
In 1894, Tolstoy suggested that those who could not surrender their hypocrisies should own them, admit them to the world. This seems like a good idea, so here goes.
I want to help my readers; I want to make a better and healthier world. But I’m selling you to make my living and have my reach. I’m selling you to hundreds of corporations and dozens of governments. I’m selling your families and your communities as well, I’m selling everyone you touch — and not just for the purposes of tracking, but of control. I’m selling you to people who will build a little reality cage that you will never see, but will affect your world every day of your life.
And I’m going to keep selling you, because I have no other way of reaching you. I’ve thought a lot about it, and I really don’t. I still love the net as a whole, I still believe that it makes everyone into a superhero. Leaving it would be quitting on the world, and I don’t want to quit. I still believe it’s the best tool to break out of this trap, by learning to use it better, to understand the net for what it is. We can become wizards in our own right, a world of wizards, not subject to the old powers that control us now. But it’s going to take a lot of work. We’re all going to have to learn a lot — the journalists, the readers, the next generation. Then we’re going to have to push back on the people who watch us and try to control who we are.
In the meantime, please keep your secret gardens and your fantasy worlds. Write things on paper every so often. Be curious about the net you live in — digital literacy is our best chance at true freedom. Meet face to face, without your phones every so often. Make your offline time valuable. Read old books. Love things without shame and take time to consider who you are away from all the things in the world trying to tell you who to be.