We are watched by our computers. Whenever we connect to the internet algorithms spring into action, analysing our searches, our likes and our online purchases in order to personalise the advertising that we see.
The idea is not in fact new. It has been going on for as long as Penguin have been putting summaries of similar books at the end of its novels, and it may do no harm. If you are interested in gardening then it is surely better that you receive adverts about plants than ones about motorbike parts. The only issue would be if the algorithms got it wrong.
David (not his real name) is a blogger with a worldwide readership – of only five people, but they are spread across the world. His modus operandi, apart from using Latin to show off, is to take a headline each week and try to construct a humorous story around it. His most recent tale was based on the headline ‘Norwegian conscripts are being forced to wear second-hand underwear’. Usually David will try to find out as little as possible about the true facts of the matter, but on this occasion he felt he should know a tiny bit more before he casually accused a group of trained and armed people of going around in greying, stained Y-fronts.
So he typed ‘Norwegian conscript underwear’ into Google. The algorithms woke, snickered, and got to work.
Algorithms have varying levels of ability, depending on who wrote their code and how much they were paid to do it. Some try to delve deep into the psyche of the individual they are profiling, carefully crafting a menu of truly meaningful spending opportunities. Most, though, read one word and just throw stuff together.
Over the following days, then, most of the adverts that popped up on the websites and social media pages that David visited related, often vaguely, to one of the three words of his search.
He received a lot of information about Norway. He got adverts for Fjord Cruises, urging him to sit on a ship while it presumably sailed into and out of one fjord after another like a nautical interdental brush. He was offered a T-shirt printed with the words of the Norwegian commentator’s legendary outburst after Norway beat England in the World Cup in1981. He was sent details of A-ha’s forthcoming tour.
Most of the algorithms that focused on the word ‘conscript’ seemed to believe that David wanted to join the military. Any military. He received application details for the Royal Navy, the US Marines, the French Foreign Legion and the Salvation Army. Others sent information about war games groups, battle re-enactment societies and paint-balling centres.
Then there was the underwear.
The lazier algorithms simply bombarded him with adverts for Anne Summers and Victoria’s Secret, filling his screen with images of wispy underwear, much of it shorter than its name. Others, which seemed to have actually read his piece, tempted him with more substantial underclothing. The offerings were in tougher fabrics, including one in Aran sweater wool, The words ‘reinforced gusset’ appeared a lot. One pair had a built-in cricketer’s box.
There were many references to Bridget Jones’ Diary.
One advert stood out from the rest. It directed him to a mobile number where he could buy Norwegian conscripts’ underwear, which presumably explains why they have shortages in the first place.
That was then, this is now. To tell the above tale David needed to know whether the second word of Victoria’s Secret was plural or not, and there was only one way to find out. Now his wife isn’t speaking to him, he cannot open his computer in his children’s presence, and he can no longer share his screen at work meetings.
Luckily, in order to check if they still existed, he also Googled ‘French Foreign Legion’. Hopefully they’ll be in touch any day now.