“It’s very clear that when a company like facebook becomes the host of the digital public sphere, you have put a lot of power in the hands of a central actor.” – Ethan Zuckerman
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.
At the end of last winter, a gigantic billboard advertising Android, Google’s operating system, appeared over Times Square in New York. In a lower-case sans serif font – corporate code for friendly – it declared: “be together. not the same.” This erratically punctuated mantra sums up the web’s most magical proposition – its existence as a space in which no one need ever suffer the pang of loneliness, in which friendship, sex and love are never more than a click away, and difference is a source of glamour, not of shame.
A few years ago, in a supermarket, I swiped my bank card to pay for groceries. I watched the little screen, waiting for its prompts. During the intervals between swiping my card, confirming the amount and entering my PIN, I was shown advertisements. Clearly some genius had realized that a person in this situation is a captive audience.