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Reading Our Minds

Am I imagining that corporate forces are reading my email and listening to my phone conversations, at least some of the time? I am not someone who likes to think that way. I know that many people have over the years contended that the government is spying on them. I don’t much think that. But I am beginning to think that it is being done by corporations.

I find that if I look up a particular subject online, the incessant ads which my AOL Mail inserts on the margins of any email I write , or delete after having read, will sometimes relate to that subject, in the form of an ad, of course.. During the enforced staying at home, I looked up shoes to buy online, and then I started seeing ads from online shoe sellers, even though I had never ordered any shoes, or given them any information. It is not the ads I mind so much, though I do not like the constant inundating with ads that we get each day. It is the sense that they have planted…I don’t know what, tripwires? algorithms? to monitor what people are writing about or reading.

I have even had phone conversations where something talked about suddenly transfigures into an ad in my mail. This doesn’t happen often, and maybe it is just one of those “when you talk about something,, or see an unusual word, it is funny how it seems to come up again very soon” things. But it is disconcerting, because if they read mail, they can listen to phone calls, or at least have some mechanism where, when certain words are said, they trigger something which alerts the bots which are out there, and they get turned into ads.

Again, I am certainly not a conspiracy theorist. But this does not seem too far-fetched. We have a capitalist society where companies must fight for survival, and must sell more each cycle. They will do virtually anything to get people to buy their products. We know that they are always trying to perfect the insidious technique of persuasion, where they will entice, seduce, scare and unsettle people enough to get them to buy their products. Their basic themes are: “You will attract other people, and be part of the ‘in crowd,’ if you buy, consume, wear or drive this” ; and “You will be uncool, shunned and lonely if you do not use, imbibe, groom with, wear, or act like this.”

There is a short story, “The Subliminal Man,” by J. G. Ballard. I do not remember it too well, but the essence was that the British government had banned subliminal advertising, but that some companies were resorting to it again, because apparently the built-in obsolescence which they had put into large devices, was not enough to create the massive buying each year which they needed, so they decided to use subliminal devices to compel people to keep buying at a faster and faster rate.

Corporations have become like creatures, and their imperative is to survive. They will do whatever they think they need to do to survive and grow. So why would they not resort to subliminal advertising? It has been made illegal, but corporations do not think they have to abide by rules. So why not create algorithms to discern what people are writing or talking about, and then make specific, but often very subtle, ads for them?

We know that the Republicans used Cambridge Analytics to harvest and utilize voter information data, to target them with specific fake news, designed to get them to shun Hillary and like Trump. Facebook played a large, and almost certainly knowing, part in this. So if corporations can get their hands on a wealth of personal data, they can create programs which can likely find just what kind of terms or fake stories will compel their targets to vote for the candidate they want, or whom someone is paying billions of dollars to them to get elected.. Put that way, it is both logical and chilling.

One of my favorite novels ever, is one that many people do not know. “Dying Inside,” by Robert Silverberg. He would be called a science fiction writer, who later wrote fantasy novels., but he was more than that. He is a very fine writer, and some of his older novels, while falling in those genres, actually transcended them. “Dying Inside” is brilliant, and I think it is one of the great novels of the last sixty years or so. It has as its protagonist and narrator, David Selig, who has been aware from the age of nine or so, that he is a telepath, he can read minds. The novel, with incredible insight and compassion, traces the logical effects of having that ability, which Selig finds is not just limited to him, there are other telepaths out there.

For David, it is a source of feeling special, but also being very lonely and alienated. When he first discovered this power, it was exciting. But now, as he is starting to lose the power in his early forties, he muses over what it has given and taken away. There is a scene where he is on a bus or subway in New York, and he is forced to listen to the static of people’s mundane thoughts as they ride along. He cannot stop it or turn it off.

For whatever reasons, Selig considers himself a failure. He has never found a job he really liked, though he did work with a stockbroker for some time, and gingerly used the power to gain knowledge of stock tips. Now he just writes term papers for college students who pay him small prices to avoid having to do it. He has no girlfriend. He remembers two women he cared for. One of them was someone whose mind he somehow could not read, which was very exciting to him, and caused him to want to find out why, and to keep giving her ESP tests, to the point that she shrank away from him.

There is another telepath whom Selig has encountered, maybe in the brokerage firm. This man is arrogant and actually sociopathic in how he uses his telepathy. He is successful in the stock market world, he uses it to attract women; he has no compunction about it. He is rather contemptuous of Selig, tells him that he has this special power, he should use it and revel in it. But Selig is not like that; he is full of guilt and sometimes even self-contempt. He has begun to hate his power, but as it now starts to disappear, he is terrified of having to be like everyone else, interacting without knowledge, just inference and supposition. The thing which has alienated him, has at least made him special, so how can he cope with losing it?

I think of this novel in various contexts. As I write about the fear that immensely large and powerful corporations will try to collect every fact about the personalities, needs and wants of their consumer targets, I do not think that this is too far off from manufactured virtual telepathy. If people’s natures can be discerned from what they say, what they write, how they react to what others say to them; then gathering all this data from their letters, stated preferences, how they answer planted online polls, what they say on the phone or even on the street or in public places, would be immensely lucrative to the entities which need to keep selling them things. Cars, kitchen implements, toilette items, pharmaceuticals, political candidates, ideas, and viewpoints; all are potentially malleable and saleable.

A really good governing body would try to protect its citizens from this mining of their privacy and personalities.. Is it not at least as dangerous, if not more so, than any outside threat? Maybe “X Files” was about things like that; I never watched it, nor indeed any of those shows, outside of “Twilight Zone,” which did venture into those realms. There was a movie which my parents saw, “Our Man Flint,” a sort of parody of James Bond movies, where apparently the “Big Bad” was the telephone company. They liked that concept as a warning against the dangers posed by immense corporations, but we are further along that road now.

And do you know what? As I wrote this, the spell check which was not there when I bought this computer some years ago, but which somehow got added by some entity, probably AOL, or Windows, or whatever they are, and which seems to be automatically on, wherever I write; and which I am told by people who know more about computers than I, that it cannot easily be removed, kept finding words like “saleable,” or “moveable” to be incorrectly spelled, which they are not. They do that with other words, too, which I am virtually certain I am spelling correctly and which checking them confirms. Who set those algorithms, and why do they insist on trying to insert their own spellings, rather than letting people, as my mother would sometimes frustratingly say to me as a boy, “Look it up.”? If the computer’s spellings were always right, it might be one thing, but they are not, and apparently no one there knows enough about the words to fix it. Unless the computer programmers intend to dictate the spellings?

I kept hearing ads on YouTube,where I sometimes go to listen to hard to find music, for something called “Grammarly,” which I think purports to change people’s diction in writing. Is “1984’s” “Ungood,” and “Plus Good” far behind? Why will they not leave us alone?! Is the goal to smooth out expressiveness, and differences, to the point that everyone sounds and reacts the same, and thus succumbs to every marketing ploy used on them? Never!! To the battlements, to defend our individuality, and freedom from being besieged by marketers and would-be controllers of thoughts and responses!!

17 Responses

  1. William, that gum you like is going to come back in style.

    Check your email for further info.

    • “Twin Peaks, The Return” was a great show, though I do not expect another one. The last episode was unforgettable, a fitting end to what came before, though of course I would love another year of episodes.

  2. I have never read Silverberg, but the description of Selig, the aging protagonist of “Dying Inside” whose powers are slipping away from him, reminded me of a favorite quote from another novel:

    “He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

  3. Uh, William, I don’t know how to tell you this but that’s Google’s whole business model (and Amazon’s and FaceBorg’s and Twit’s). They hoover up information about users of their “services” and monetize it. That’s where the money comes from, and that’s why Schmidt, Brin, Bezos, Zuckerberg, and Dorsey are all billionaires. Were you seriously not aware of that? There’s stuff you can do to mitigate this. For example, there are 11 trackers on this very web page (at least those are the ones that the software I run has trapped and blocked). See those little Google, Twitter, and Facebook icons here on the web page. They’re not there for your convenience. They’re there so those companies can track your browsing and commenting patterns and sell them to the highest bidder. Google does indeed read all emails sent through gmail and searches them for keywords to be used for ad targeting. I assume AOL (isn’t it amazing they’re still in business!) does the same thing.

    Some tips:

    1) Don’t run Chrome. At all. Ever. Chrome is spyware disguised as a web browser. It tracks absolutely everything you look at or touch on the web and sends it straight to Mountain View. It’s the worst of all possible choices for a web browser. Don’t even install it on your system.

    2) Don’t log into Google “products” (Google, gmail, YouTube, etc, etc). In fact, avoid using them if you can. Use search engines that don’t store user information and don’t target ads: DuckDuckGo or (my favorite) Qwant. Qwant is based in France and subject to EU data privacy laws: they’re legally prohibited from retaining user or search history data. I unfortunately have to use gmail for work, since my new employers use gmail as a company mail provider. I do what I can to insulate my personal stuff.

    3) Run a search obfuscator (like TrackMeNot) in the background. These won’t prevent search engines from correlating searches and IP addresses, but they will inject enough noise into your search history to make meaningful correlations difficult. They can be programmed to avoid searching for terms that DHS considers “interesting” – I’d recommend setting that option.

    4) Block all ads. In the early days of the web I did this manually by blackholing all the ad site domains so they’d resolve to my local system. There are too many these days, so I do it in software.

    5) Block all trackers.

    6) Don’t use any FaceBorg “products” (Facebook itself, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc, etc.)

    7) Don’t Twit. If your deepest thoughts can be expressed in a tweet, you should probably do the world a favor and STFU. Twitter gave us Donald Trump, after all.

    8) I doubt if your phone company is listening in, unless you’re using some sort of VOIP service. Traditional phone companies are covered by wiretapping laws, after all. VOIP not so much. But yes, voice recognition and speech processing software has come a long way in the last couple of decades.

    Always remember the words of “Lambert Strether” of Corrente and Naked Capitalism fame: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product!”

    BTW: I stopped using computer spellcheckers when I noted that the old Unix System V “spell” program misspelled the word “misspell”. That was almost 40 years ago. I have never looked back.

    The movie you’re thinking of isn’t “Our Man Flint”, it’s “The President’s Analyst” (also starring James Coburn, which is why the confusion is understandable). One of my favorite films – especially the way one segment of it spoofs the old Bell System Science Series films that were shown to so many schoolchildren in the 1960s (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bell_System_Science_Series). The “Flint” series is indeed a James Bond parody, but TPC (“The Phone Company”) is not the villain in those pictures.

    • I appreciate the advice! Actually, I have instinctively followed most of those recommendations. I do not use Google for search. I do not use Chrome, at least not knowingly. I do not do Twitter or Facebook, or use gmail. Still, in my naivete about the technological side, I probably do something I should not be doing.. I am not hounded by ads, except on AOL Mail; and also, I see ads for glasses on almost every site; either there is a glasses company which has enough money to pay for that many ads, or it is coming from AOL, even though I have never done more than look for sunglasses online, and never bought any.

      I think that Mr. Strether, otherwise known as the main character in Henry James’ “The Ambassadors,” has a very good point, similar to the “If you are in a poker game, and you cannot spot who the sucker in the game is, it is you.”

      I stay as far away from Google as I can, and I think that with all the good initiatives that the Biden Administration is working on; and realizing the time exigencies before the next election, they should do more to try to protect consumer privacy from these predatory entities.

      • There is pretty much only one eyeglass company: Luxottica Group, SA (based in Milan). Luxottica Group owns Rayban, Oakley, Pearle Vision, Lens Crafters, Sunglass Hut, Sears Optical, Target Optical, Glasses.com etc., and manufactures all eyewear under numerous “designer” labels: Vera Wang, Chanel, Gucci,etc., etc. If you looked up any of those brands online, you’re being targeted by Luxottica. They control about 25% of worldwide sales of eyewear, and nearly 100% in the US.

        Welcome to the “free market”. Adam Smith is spinning in his grave.

  4. A cyber security expert I know says it’s a losing battle, no matter what precautions we take. “They” already know all about us.

    As Strelnikov ( Pasha ) said to Zhivago, “The private life is dead.”

  5. I do avoid Fartbook and its subsidiaries (bought-up former competitors, IIRC) and also Shitter, but I just DGAF about the rest of it. I figure I’m too damn boring to interest the government, and as for Big Biz, lotsa luck trying to sell their crap to someone who has no money for non-essentials! 😆

    • Oh yeah, I quit Chrome some time ago. I’m finding Microsoft Edge quite satisfactory, plus I have Firefox ready to go if Edge starts to annoy me.

  6. Great post William and thanks for the pro tips Propertius (even though a lot of it is Greek to me). Beata is probably right, the monster is already under the bed and making a nest for its spawn, but I still feel the urge to shake my gnarled arthritic fists at it in futile defiance.

    Can these measures be used with Apple products, P? Apple seems to have a whole other scheme/scam going….. I always seem to end up where I didn’t intend to go, no idea how I got there and no idea how to undo it and find my way back to where I was before I was kidnapped.

    I just got one of those identity alerts that said I need to change the password associated with a site I have never been to, or if I had been in some altered state, would never have signed in to get a password. Clearvoicesurveys.com? How does one protect oneself by changing a password one never created?

    • Thank you, Cats! That last sentence of yours is both profound and eerie! I could see a horror short story like that; someone is told he must change his password, but he has none. Who gave it to him? Are they confusing him with someone else? Is he in an alternative universe? Is the the subject of some mental experiment? Rod Serling would have done it.

      And I agree with you, that we must fight against this. There was a paperback I got, something about “Writings of The Lead Pencil Club.” The members of this actual group were very much against what was happening on the internet; they literally or figuratively want to go back to a time where you wrote with a pencil. There were various comments and articles by them, and it was a good book. But I wonder if they are still out there, fighting. I hope so.

  7. A lead pencil with a big eraser, sigh…..thems were the days, eh?

    • Don’t forget a good pencil sharpener! They are hard to find these days. Pencils don’t seem to be made as well as they once were, either.

      Bah humbug!

  8. Beata, good thinking! Would also need lots of paper, a thesaurus and a dictionary big enough to break your foot if you dropped it….

    And honestly, is anything made as well as it used to be or am I just suffering from gilded nostalgia? Not only are things not as good, if they were made in China, they don’t last long either and have to be replaced way too often. The endless, buy it, dispose of it, buy it again. I have items that are over a decade old, not looking their best, but I can’t find anything as good or as comfortable. I am starting to look like a bag lady. Fortunately, I am of an age that I don’t care any more!

    Hey, IBW, how are you feeling? How is the diet and the pacing going? I lost about five pounds with portion control. That’s about as much as I can do without gnawing on an appendage. I do love to eat…

    • Cats, I know. I used to buy a lot of Talbots, Jones New York and Ann Taylor clothes. They last forever. I still have some pieces that are 10 years old and look better than the “fast fashion” in stores these days. I like nice clothes but I can’t find any! I bought a few things from Macy’s online since the pandemic and they look like junk. Because they are junk! I think they are made out of toxic waste or something. I returned them.

  9. I hear you Beata, don’t get me started on shoes….how can you buy shoes on line which are made from lasts that I am convinced were not modeled on any human feet. Remember when you went in the store, browsed, picked up and touched the footwear, read the tiny print, and when you made some selections, they measured you with that footsie slide rule, then they would bring out boxes and slip your foot in the shoes with the shoe horn, and let you walk on the rug in them and admire them in a floor mirror. OMG, I just time warped… sorry.

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