The prospect of a corporate-state apparatus that knows exactly what you’re doing at every moment is the stuff of science fiction. Books like 1984 and We imagine a surveillance that has successfully penetrated every aspect of our lives. But what about the surveillance that has unsuccessfully penetrated our lives? We imagine the dangers of everyone else knowing what we’re doing, but we should probably be worried about the scenarios where total information awareness is mistaken. What happens when the security state confuses you with the previous tenant of your apartment? In our culture of surveillance, whither the Charles Monsons and Khalid Steve Mohammeds? Today is Friday, and the danger is not so much that the government will know everything about you as that it will think it does. Won’t you overlap with me?
First, the good news: Information mining has gotten so sophisticated that Facebook now collects nearly 100 different data points on each of its users. The bad news is they’re wrong. In the alarmingly headlined They Have, Right Now, Another You, Sue Halpern notes that the worrisome thing about data collection may not be its extent but its accuracy. Much of what Facebook concludes about you and sells to advertisers is based not on what you like, but on what people who like what you like tend to like. These affinities come out as certainties on the other end of various algorithms, as Halpern discovers when she feeds her own data into a “predictor engine”:
According to the algorithm of the Psychometrics Centre, “Your likes suggest you are single and not in a relationship.” Why? Because I’ve liked the page for 350.org, an organization founded by the man with whom I’ve been in a relationship for thirty years!
It’s almost comforting to know that the massive marketing vacuum sucking up all available data on each of us is spitting out wrong answers, until you consider the willingness of Facebook and the corporate entities it serves to share their data with law enforcement. The line between corporate data collection and state surveillance is increasingly blurred. Enter FamilyTreeNow.com, a website that makes public an awful lot of information about your addresses, relatives, and “known associates.” Ironically, the operators of the site are themselves hard to find. According to the Washington Post, Dustin Weirich, the founder of the site and the only officer listed in public records, didn’t answer emails or phone calls requesting comment. After reporter Abby Ohlheiser tried to get ahold of him, his LinkedIn and FamilyTreeNow pages went from public to private. That’s the kind of low-grade, modern irony I cannot abide.
Meanwhile, in amateur surveillance, Washington Post editor Doris Truong has become the object of an internet conspiracy. On Wednesday, various patriots that another era might call cranks noticed an Asian woman using her cell phone during a break at Rex Tillerson’s Senate confirmation hearing. They concluded that she was taking pictures of the nominee’s notes, and that she was Truong. Within 24 hours, Truong received a deluge of tweets, Facebook messages, Instagram comments, emails and phone calls accusing her of treason and theft. Never mind that she was home when the (utterly speculative, based on a few seconds of video) espionage was taking place, and that as an employee of the Post, she is eminently reachable by other journalists who might want to confirm that. Among journalists who don’t want to confirm anything, though, she became the subject of a post on Gateway Pundit, which has been updated to note that the woman wasn’t Truong in a way that suggests the “liberal media” is hiding something. Also note that this story came to GP via Mike Cernovich, a purveyor of pure speculation.
The biased mainstream media is dead. All hail the new media, which can extrapolate a global conspiracy from a few seconds of texting but cannot tell Asians apart. I don’t understand why these people find it necessary to speculate about a Senate confirmation hearing. Such events are pretty fully known. We should reserve our speculation for eras before video feeds and attendance lists. Over at the New York Times Magazine, the best magazine that publishes the most handsome freelance contributors, writer-at-large Jon Mooallem has written a long, oddly funny story on the humanity of the Neanderthal. Although paleoanthropologists once regarded Neanderthals as archetypal cave men, uninterested in ritual and other expressions of the kind of symbolic thought that makes us human, new research suggests they were more similar to us than we thought. It also raises some existential-ethical questions about the possibility that we have libeled people who went extinct 40,000 years ago. We are to the Neanderthal as Facebook is to us.
It’s too bad Woody Guthrie sat on his guitar, because we could use a machine that kills fascists right about now. I guess I’ll just have to put a “this machine kills fascists” sticker on my Macbook. On Twitter, some wag has constructed a This [Blank] Kills Fascists bot: this air conditioner kills fascists, this coconut kills fascists, the pleasingly dataset-errored this leg warmers kills fascists. I feel the account reached a new level this morning with this orange kills fascists, which does not picture an orange. Because it follows only one other user, and that user professes an interest in bots, I’m going to attribute the Kills Fascists bot to Elliott Lusztig. It’s either him or the extremely problematic Twitter provocateur Todd Hitler. Regardless, it’s a nice little piece of political performance art. This smug complacency kills fascists.
Singing into an SM-57 is so cool. You start wearing blue and brown…