Fast forward to today. I received this email from Amazon a few minutes ago:
How in the world did Amazon decide I was interested in solar spotlights? My wife was the one shopping - not me. Having met and married in our thirties, we both already had our own Amazon accounts linked to our own, separate credit cards. Other than a common last name and shipping address, we should, in theory, be distinct identities to Amazon. Yet somehow, Amazon has decided that I may be interested in one of my wife's search terms.
On one hand, I like this. It's convenient. It's a subtle reminder that 'oh yeah, we were looking for lights.' At the same time though, it creeps me out. Big time. How much does Amazon really know about me - or better yet - how much does Amazon think they know about me?
I love technology. I always have. Ever since I wrote my first crude video game in 1980, I've been fascinated by the potential. But sometimes I wonder where it's all going. Never before have we had the tools to analyze and act upon so much information in near-real time. The speed at which connections are being created between various pieces of data about us, both in private and in public, is accelerating at a rate beyond our comprehension, taking on a life of its own. The ability for humans to make unassisted decisions, to behave in truly independent fashion, is vanishing. Or maybe it's already gone? This phenomenon both excites and terrifies me. The excitement stems from the potential for discovery about us as a species. The fear comes from the concern that all of this wonderful technology will be squandered on selling widgets we don't need and potentially even more nefarious applications.
For the time being, I'm going to exercise caution, I'm going to be a little more conscious of emails such as this pitch for solar lighting. Short of donning a tinfoil hat and moving to Alaska, I'm not sure what else I can do.
I've barely scratched the surface of this topic in this post. If you want to learn more about the personalized web and its implications - I suggest starting with The Filter Bubble (from Amazon, of course) by Eli Pariser. He's done a fantastic job of digging into the history and the ramifications of something we all take for granted, and he does it without getting lost in the details. If you're a more visual person, check out his TEDTalk on the subject.
And the next time you get an email pitching a service or product and you get that tickle in the back of your mind, that nagging feeling your computer knows you better than you know yourself , take a moment and consider how this is possible. You may not like what you find.