From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

May 31, 2008*: It's nothing personal.

At a recent lecture at which I described some of the characteristics of today's online reality, a member of my audience, an aging, but far from old, woman, vehemently burst out with a lengthy diatribe. I had noted that in our constantly connected world we are constantly being bombarded with new and additional information, much of it posted online by non-experts. This woman, who had sit quietly throughout the first part of my presentation, was suddenly unable to contain herself. In a drawn-out monologue she blurted out that she didn't have time for all of this, let alone any interest in it. I attempted to explain to her that the fact that so many people were posting so much information on the web didn't actually oblige her to read any of it. But this didn't seem to calm her, and she continued her rant until a number of other audience members asked her to stop.

This woman's rant initiated a series of reflections on my part. It just didn't seem to make sense. I found myself wondering what was it about the banal act of clicking (or for that matter, not clicking) on almost random links that could generate in her, as it seems to do with so many others, a feeling that the pages she visited, or refused to visit, were somehow being directed precisely toward her? Maybe I'm an exception, but when I've been informed, even in the boldest of capital letters, that because I'm the exact millionth visitor to a particular site and thus eligible for a special prize, I never assumed that that particular advertisement was actually being directly precisely toward me. And that being the case, it's hard to think that there's much reason for me to take personal offense toward something I encounter on the web.

True, we've been told, time after time, that the internet ushered in an era of personalized content, but when we attempt to analyze the true intent of those claims, we realize that we're basically being told that via our television we get the programming that someone determined is fitting for an amorphous and faceless "we", while on the web each "I" can choose precisely which program he or she want to waste his or her time with. Clicking on a link is rather unavoidably an individual activity, but so is clicking on the remote control of a television. Contrary to the hype, the internet is a mass medium, and though the specific experience of each surfer as he or she clicks from page to page may be different in its details, the overall experience for most web surfers is almost interchangeable - and far from personal. It may no longer be "one size fits all", but all those sizes rarely seem to suggest a qualitative difference. And from within a reality of this sort, there's little reason to assume that something on the web is really meant for me, and even less reason to take personal offence at something that hardly knows I'm there at all.

A reasonable claim can be made that in the days before the internet dominated our computer use and dwarfed all the other activities we may have done with them, many of us developed a personal rapport with our computers. I even claimed, over ten years ago, that our computer had become part of the family. But back then it was perhaps possible to find different qualities among the various computers we encountered, though writing this is undoubtedly an exaggeration, perhaps made somewhat legitimate by the novelty of our first computers. Probably few, if any, of us named our computers in the manner that B.B. King named his guitar, but if we sat in front of different computers we may have noticed that they differed in the programs they held, or the add-ons that gave them a distinct flavor. We had to get used to the feel of the keyboard, and of course somebody else's computer didn't hold our files. If, however, there really was a time such as this in the dawn of the PC age, surely it has long ago passed.

Not quite as long ago as that, however, one of the qualities that made our computers distinct from those of others we might frequent were the games we stored on them. These perhaps permitted us to feel that there really was something personal about our computers. But as more and more relatively simple (and even rather complex) games became available online, and for free, this "personal" aspect also became relegated to the past. And of course many of today's most popular games have become social or interactive. They can't be played without an internet connection, meaning that here as well we witness a reduction in the "personal" qualities of our computers. Many, even most, people still don't use (or perhaps even know of) online office tools like Google Docs - their word processed files still sit on their hard drives as though that's the only place they might possibly reside. But the same can't really be said for photographs. Sites like Flickr and Picasaweb have come close to becoming the standard for these, further depersonalizing the PC. Frankly, if we still hear the term PC today we may even have to remind ourselves that the acronym once actually had meaning. There's something presumptuous, even oxymoronic, in referring to the box that sits by our desks and allows us to connect to the world as being "personal". The name seems to be the only part that's really left of a long-gone era. It's a name that holds a great deal of history, but it hardly fits today's computers.

Nobody is waiting for us to come visit a site, opening the door, asking us what's new, expressing concern about our health. When we get "personal" assistance it's to make a sale, putting the classic phrase about psychotherapy, the purchase of friendship (hey, I've mentioned that book before), on its head, while maintaining essentially the same meaning. What we have via our personal valets is "friendship" for purchase. I've yet to see a recommendation engine that tells me "maybe you're not in the mood to buy anything today", or "there's nothing new of late that merits your perusal". It's just not going to happen, and not because a bot isn't capable of knowing whether I've got an ear ache and don't want to hear music, or that I've already overspent my budget this month, but because the "concern" that these bots express toward us is completely impersonal.

Though T-shirts with the banner:

There's no place like
have, perhaps justifiably, become cult classics, the belief that there's any real correlation between our IP and our identity is little more than wishful thinking. Or perhaps worse. Though of course it's done in jest, what we have here is a reification of the technology, a remaking of ourselves in the image of the machine. Perhaps the attempts in the early days of the internet to anonymize our web surfing weren't only for more banal reasons, but also to in some way make a declaration that we are distinct from our computers. Tools of this sort are still available, though I'm not sure that anyone besides hard core hackers use them, or even know about them. And perhaps we should be asking why, in an era in which we're well aware that governments are more than willing to keep their eyes on us, and have the technological means to do so, anonymizing tools of this sort are no longer popular. I'm willing to venture a relatively simply guess - most of us simply don't have a personal relationship with the internet such that they feel that their identity is really out there, susceptible to government, or other, surveillance.

When I'm told at the check-out counter of the supermarket that I should have a nice day I never actually assume that the person telling me this is expressing real concern, or even knows anything about my day up until then or what's yet to come. We've grown so accustomed to this sort of facade, so grown to expect it, that if we actually encounter honest and heartfelt concern, we'd probably have a difficult time identifying it as such. Computers have become, in a relatively short period of time, integral parts of our lives. We turn to them to access and to store information. We use them to generate new information which many of us also distribute to the world - via those computers, of course. It's not hard to understand why it is that some of us tend to relate to them as appendages of our physical ourselves. Over the years its become popular to extend this "appendage" metaphor, and to perceive the cosmic collection of information that the internet aggregates and disseminates as a vast ant colony, creating an entity with a purpose beyond its components, a purpose that its parts aren't aware of. But as enticing as this metaphor might be, it's not only the parts that lack purpose. Any actual concern, or for that matter, attempt to offend, isn't intentional. There's no reason to take it personally.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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