Charlie Mitchell: Push to personalize may pigeonhole the populace

October 16, 2013 10:27:51 AM

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OXFORD -- Tracking. Mining. Harvesting. Drilling. 

 

If those words bring to mind Daniel Boone, coal cars wending along railroad tracks, cotton fields in October and dentists, you are over 60. 

 

If you think "social media," you are under 25. 

 

Today's column is about the latter -- Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Pinterest, Instagram and dozens of others -- but it applies to people of any age. 

 

The question is, "Where is this all this stuff taking us?" 

 

Most social media platforms and services (Google and Yahoo!, too) offer a trade. They are Internet versions of rewards cards I remember from my own childhood. (Frederick's Shoes offered a free pair after every 10th pair purchased, and my mother's frayed card was precious to her.) 

 

In the modern incarnation, we gladly agree to have our grocery lists become part of a database -- to be tracked, mined, harvested and drilled -- in exchange for discounts and coupons. 

 

Privacy, for the most part, is not an issue. It doesn't bother us that someone can sit down at a Kroger computer somewhere and determine, within a couple of ounces, how much 2 percent milk is in our refrigerators or predict within an hour or two when we'll show up to buy another quart. 

 

In the same way, we like the fact that Facebook offers us a chance to stay in touch with family and friends -- absolutely free. Google and Yahoo offer us instant news, weather and sports, let us keep up with our appointments and allow us to send and receive emails. 

 

Just like grocery stores, what they get in return in addition to loyalty is "data." Their computers analyze who and what we like, who we write to and the words we use. 

 

None of this is surprising. The most ancient of ancient goals in advertising is to get the most effective message possible to the most likely customers at the least possible expense. 

 

Just as the Internet has added light speed to communications, generally, it has ratcheted up the pairing of those with goods or services to sell with their most likely customers. 

 

Earlier this year, of course, there was a great (and justified) hue and cry when it was revealed that our government is also mining information from our use of electronic devices. Nobody liked that very much, but few fret about the commercial aspect. 

 

There are pitfalls to the personalization. Suppose a nursing student is writing a research paper. Suppose the student spends hours and days on the Internet researching how a form of cancer is diagnosed and treated. Suppose years pass and a prospective employer orders a background check that includes the student's online history. And suppose that history hints (based on the cancer research) that the student is not in good health, and so is passed over for a job. 

 

It could happen. 

 

The big deal, though, is that there really is no end in sight. Online merchants use our past purchases of books, movies and music to predict what else might pique our interests. Internet, cable and satellite TV services "remember" what we have viewed and steer us to more of the same. 

 

The logical end is one giant database. We will each define ourselves to one super-duper computer and it, in return, will identify us to the world. 

 

A byproduct could be the loss of whimsy, the chance of stumbling onto a book or a movie or a product we might like but never know about because it didn't show up in our "preference file." 

 

A teen might never hear anything by Bach or Beethoven because his iTunes purchases will keep steering him to artists similar to Katy Perry. A botanist might never read about a fascinating plant in South America because all her previous research was on plants of Africa. A family might never visit the Rockies because all their previous vacation destinations were beaches and their "browsing history" will lock out any package deals in Aspen. 

 

The Internet and social media puts the world at our fingertips. Never before have so many been able to find out so much about anything and everything so fast. 

 

Wouldn't it be tragic, though, if the end result of all the tracking, mining, harvesting and drilling locks people into ruts, pigeonholes them and narrows their perspectives? 

 

That could happen, too. 

 

Fight it. Fire up the Internet. Open a search engine. Type in three words, any three words. 

 

Explore.