Like many doting parents, I post about my son on Facebook, enjoying the few years I have left before he gets veto power. I don’t put up anything negative or anything that might embarrass him later and I thought I was fine. But Amy Webb thinks I’ll regret it, and I’m wondering if she might be right.
In the dawning era of infinite data and instant analytics, Webb argues, every single scrap of information about a child is going to be stored and used over the years to track her, assess her, and market to her. So Webb posts nothing about her small daughter online ever. When friends or acquaintances tag or otherwise mention her daughter, she asks them to remove the data. Moreover, before the kid was born her parents created Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Github accounts for her, and an email account to anchor them. In fact, before they’d chosen a name they checked to make sure it wasn’t already in use on the Web. All of this will prevent them (or anyone else) from creating a web presence for her before she
I know, it sounds almost comically geeky, and you can enjoy a chuckle at Webb’s expense if you like—the way Henry James laughed when Rudyard Kipling, talking endlessly about his shiny new “motorcar,” learned that the axles on the newfangled contraption had jammed up. Oh, these tech people and their gadgets, right? But Kipling was correct about the future—cars and their workings were important, and today it’s James, who thought he was above such things, who looks a bit silly in that story.
Webb is protecting her daughter against the effects of what we might call Total Analytics—the automatic and unceasing collection of every bit of digital information about the child, for the purposes of selling stuff (to her social network and later to her) and evaluating her (will she be a good customer? a good student? a good employee?). There’s no point in arguing about whether this Total Analytics culture can or should be stopped. It’s coming. We digital citizens adore using it and don’t mind that much when it is used on us (why, come to think of it, I would like to buy that item you suggested based on my shopping history, so, thanks!). Moreover, now that data is cheap to acquire and store and analysis easy to harness, we’re all getting used to seeing the world with these tools. It is fun, and informative to see social change in New York Times wedding announcements or see how neighborhoods in your city differ in their degree of “sex want.” It is kind of helpful to use your smartphone to see what companies profit from the goods you buy. It is narcissistic catnip to be able to see on your smartphone how much sleep you just got and even how good that sleep was. With each seductive advance, this quantified approach to life becomes more normal. Detailed data on everything is rushing along Thorsten Veblen’s path from luxury to convenience to necessity.
The important question about this Total Analytics culture isn’t whether it is going to take over (it will) not whether it’s A Good Thing (who knows?). It is, rather: Who is in control? Will it be Facebook, Google and their peers and successors, quietly turning us into better and better customers? Or will it be individuals, strictly and attentively managing their information? Given the incentives for both sides, I think it’s reasonable to expect an arms race in the near future. On one side will be data-gatherers, trying to make their tracking as painless, unnoticeable and even pleasant as possible. On the other will be people like Webb, sounding the alarm and offering strategies (and apps, no doubt) to keep the rest of us from handing ourselves (or our loved ones) over. What sounds extreme in 2013 may well be just basic responsible parenting in 2023.
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