Wednesday, April 26, 2023

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Free Digital Stuff

In October 2015, I found myself behind the wheel of a rental car in Bucharest, Romania. I was frantic, lost, and getting loster. My plan to drive from the rental location to my nearby hotel had gone south the instant I left the parking lot. The sea of cars prevented me from making the turns I wanted, and in less than a minute, I was lost, helplessly flowing with traffic in a city I'd never been in. There was nowhere to pull over, no place to stop and check a map. Vehicles were everywhere, including on the sidewalk. I flung my iPhone at my companion and told him to bring up the Maps app. Having never used a smart phone, he had no idea how. Too busy driving to help him, I grabbed the phone and barked "navigate to Andrei's parents' house!" into it. 

It was an act of desperation. It was my first smart phone, and I'd had it only a month. (I was late to the party.) I still had trouble remembering how to hold it right side up. But I knew it could navigate, and I knew it could respond to voice commands. I also knew that if we didn't break free from the traffic in which we were drifting, things were going to get worse. I held my breath and waited.

"Beginning navigation to Andrei's parents' house," the iPhone soothingly intoned, followed by the turn-by-turn directions nav apps are known for. We arrived a short time later, cool, calm, collected, and both convinced that smart phones were a lot more than we'd given them credit for. 

Speech recognition on smart phones is free. You don't pay extra for it. Navigation apps are free, too. You get a lot for what you don't pay. Speech recognition works in multiple languages as well as in terrible audio environments. I've dictated messages in my American-accented German on loud city streets, and my iPhone has gotten it about as right as it does my native English in a quiet room. That's right enough that I take its correctness for granted and get annoyed when it makes mistakes. Nav apps work worldwide. I would happily pay monthly fees for these services. I'm pleased that I don't have to.

I'm equally pleased that I don't have to pay for Google's internet search services. They don't find all the needles I'm looking for in the world's digital haystacks, but across text, images, and videos, they find the vast majority of them. Where Google comes up short, I can generally rely on YouTube (for videos) and Yandex (for images). Those services are free, too.

Another thing I'd pay for is Google Photos' search capabilities. They have an uncanny ability to help me find the photographs (and videos) I'm looking for out of the tens of thousands I have stored on their servers. There's no charge for my being able to request "Scott at Uluru" and have Google pluck this from my mountain of images:

This isn't my best look, but Uluru looks good, and Google's ability to locate images in this way turns a heap of random snapshots and videos into a useful collection of visual souvenirs. In my experience, nothing from any other vendor can touch this ability. It's remarkable that Google doesn't charge for it.

Google doesn't charge for Google Earth, either. It's a mainstay of my trip-planning tools, making it easy for me to get 3D views of places I might want to visit, drop pins at important sites, measure distances between locations (both by road and as the crow flies), and much more. Like speech recognition, worldwide navigation, internet search, photo search, and automatic language translation (which I haven't mentioned, but use nearly every day), it's valuable enough that I'd pay money for it. It's amazing that I don't have to.

The standard rejoinder is that if you're not paying for a product, it's because you are the product. The currency with which you're bought and sold is data. Your travels on the internet are tracked via cookies (among other things), and your movements in the real world are tracked via the GPS data on your phone (among other things). Your purchases are monitored, the songs you listen to are noted, the routes you drive are logged, and precise records are kept of how much time you spend where, in both the real and virtual worlds. Detailed dossiers on you are sold to advertisers, who use this personal information to aim advertisements at you with laser precision. Such is the price of free, we're told.  

I believe it. But after years of reading about it and thinking about it and trying to decide if I should be outraged, I've decided that if I can trade my data for speech recognition, language translation, universal navigation, comprehensive internet search, personalized photo search, travel planning tools like Google Earth, and myriad other digital products and services, it's one of the best deals I'll ever get. I'm absolutely in.

There are two reasons for this. First, the corporate villains of the digital world are hardly breaking new ground in profiling me for advertising purposes. They may be able to put together a higher-resolution view of my life than companies that don't follow my movements through the internet, but my life has become a pretty open book without them. 

You want to know who my parents are, where I live, the amount of my mortgage, whether I'm married, the kind of cars I own, whether I've been arrested, my political affiliation, or how often I vote? It's all part of the public record.

You want to know what I buy and what I eat? Ask my local grocery stores. They made me choose between joining their loyalty clubs (thus enabling tracking my purchases) or paying up to double their "special member pricing." I joined. Not that their clubs are necessary. I usually pay by credit card, and it wouldn't take a genius to figure out that the purchases made with my card were probably made by me.

Credit card companies have known for decades where and when I spend money. I use cash less and less, so credit card companies know more about me than ever. The briefest of glances at my transactions will reveal that I like to travel and I eat out a lot. A slightly longer look will reveal my travel destinations, the kinds of restaurants I patronize, the times of day I buy meals, and the full complement of stores I frequent. Throw some machine learning at that data, and I'm surely a pretty transparent advertising target.

My cellular carrier tracks the movements of my phone, roadway cameras track the movements of my car's license plate, smart doorbells and Teslas in Sentry Mode record me as I walk my dog, and security cameras monitor me on public transit and in spaces public and private. Facial recognition software means there's no hiding in a crowd. 

I use social media very little, so my direct footprint there is tiny, but my family and friends are more engaged. They tag me in their photos and mention me in their posts. I almost never log in to Facebook or Instagram, but the borg that is Meta can probably describe me better than I can describe myself. (I confess to being a regular WhatsApp user.)

The world is awash in data that is or could easily be linked to me. Some of it stems from the Internet, but much does not. It was nearly a quarter century ago (in January 1999) that Scott McNealy famously remarked, "“You have zero privacy… Get over it!” I have.

The second reason I don't mind trading my data for complimentary speech recognition, worldwide navigation, and internet search, etc, is that the bargain is far from Faustian. If the only downside to the deal is that I'll be exposed to advertising that's more likely to be interesting to me, how is that bad? It'd be one thing if I was unwittingly signing up for more ads, but if I'm going to be accosted by a fixed number of ads regardless, why would I prefer irrelevant ones over ads more likely to address things I care about?

Advertising is intrusive. I subject myself to as little as possible. I use ad blockers in my web browsers, and I get most of my video from ad-free subscription services. (For music, I'm a throwback and listen to terrestrial FM radio (!), but this is generally in the car, and when an ad comes on, I switch to a different station or hit the mute button.) The relatively few ads that get to me are the ones I can't find a way to quash. Why shouldn't I want to maximize the chances that I'm interested in what they have to say? To this end, I've actually enabled Google's "Personalized ads" toggle. Google's going to collect as much data about me as it can, no matter what I do. For the ads that get past my defenses, it might as well put in the extra effort to increase the likelihood I'll find some merit in them.

In sum, (1) no matter what I do, advertisers will have access to detailed profiles of me, and (2) custom-tailored ads are preferable to generic ones. From my perspective, the price of free--my incremental cost for free speech recognition, free worldwide navigation, free comprehensive internet search, free personalized image search, free language translation, and free lots-of-other-stuff--is nothing. All that free stuff really is free, at least to me, because advertisers harvest my data either way.

I'm uneasy about two things. First, the most commonly mentioned downside to extensive personal tracking is targeted advertising, but that's not the only risk. Profiles of what I do and where I go could be used for stalking, blackmail, extortion, digital impersonation, and governmental abuse. Personalized ads are the smile of the beast. It also has teeth.

Second, while I'm comfortable with my ability to resist personalized ads for products and services, I'm less sanguine about my ability to recognize and disregard political ads designed to influence me. If you engage an army of psychologists to train AI to read personal profiles and identify hot buttons, I've no doubt it'd find mine. I believe my lack of engagement with social media largely shields me from such attacks, but I recognize that this may simply be hubris on my part. 

It's possible to imagine worlds where personal data isn't automatically collected, packaged, sold, and exploited. Things don't have to be the way they are. There are people working to bring such worlds into existence. I'm not optimistic about their success, however, and at any rate, the world I live in is the one we have now. As long as that's the case, I'll happily take advantage of the free things my data is paying for.


Marco said...

Another risk of personalized ads is about "feeding confirmation bias".
For example, you open YouTube and search "the Earth is flat". You watch a video and probably burst into laughter. Then you start getting more and more suggested videos about flat Earth. Is the Earth really flat? God, no! So why is YouTube constantly prompting that it is?!
And when kids are on the other side of the screen this might be unpleasant.

Sometimes you are your worst enemy and "personalized ads" rub salt in the wound!

Scott Meyers said...

I think of personalized ads as being different from personalized recommendations for articles, videos, songs, etc., but there is probably more overlap there than I'd like to admit. Either way, confirmation bias is a definite risk.

Jose Benavides said...

Creo que la vida es muy corta , para preocuparse como dice Scott, aunque ya tenemos gente trabajando en prolongarla más años, como Elon, y aún así aunque la doblarán a 200 años , sería corta, para poder aprender tantas cosas que existen, y que seguirán descubriendo , mi día de va trabajando y el resto aprendiendo , pero debo dormir, y me falta dia. Lo único que me preocupa de los anuncios y publicidad dirigida es el tiempo que pierdo en dar click u emitir otro evento, para cerrarla y eso suma, suma y suma.

Anonymous said...

Still I'd be worried about all the microphones we have on us, and tracking our precise location in real time. That's something that we can and should more or less block.