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As humans, we aren't always good at remembering how, when, and where we acquire particular bits of information. But we are very good at tracking the social structures through which information flows.
Even my 3-year-old can reconstruct, with uncanny accuracy, the social structure of her preschool. If asked, she'll readily report whom each child plays with, which children sit together at lunchtime, and who drops off and picks up each classmate.
As adults, we don't just track this information; we use it strategically. If you don't want Adrian to hear about your new promotion, you know not to tell Brook. On the other hand, if you do want Adrian to hear about your new promotion (but not from you!), you know exactly whom to tell.
Personalized Internet advertising flies in the face of this carefully elaborated social knowledge. You might search for information about hybrid cars one morning, then find yourself surrounded by hybrid car ads as you browse news stories about failing banana crops the following day. (How did they know??? And who is the "they"???)
This experience — all too familiar — is the virtual equivalent of telling your neighbor you're thinking of buying a hybrid car, and later having your boss interrupt an afternoon meeting to extol the virtues of her Prius. Or finding pamphlets on Sumatra coffee in your mailbox after casually mentioning, to an unknown barista, that it's your favorite brew.
It's not exactly sinister. But it is a little creepy.
The problem is this: The data-mining tools that glean our interests and choose our ads don't fit into the complex flow of information we've spent our lives charting and mastering. We don't have a map that tells us how a particular bit of information made it from Point A to Point B, nor the social context that gives us insight into why.
Current information-tracking practices have many people worried about privacy, but perhaps it isn't the feeling of being watched, per se, that can make personalized advertising so unnerving. Perhaps it's the disconnected and distinctly asocial nature of the watcher. We're forced to navigate the flow of information without our well-worn social map.
You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo
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