To adapt slightly the opening sentence of Kafka’s The Trial, someone must have been talking about me. I know this from all the advertisements and offers I receive unsolicited through the internet.
Today came yet another offer of supposedly cheap burial insurance and then an e-mail suggesting that I should ‘Say hello to living confidently.’ At first sight, these two advertisements seem contradictory, but it turned out that the contradiction could be resolved. Living confidently referred to my bladder control.
I am the last to deny the seriousness of incontinence and I admit that these days I have to get up in the night in a way that I used not to. But even so, such lack of confidence as that from which I suffer – I am shy at parties, for example, never knowing quite what to say – has nothing to do with my bladder control (yet).
These e-mails are obviously targeted: I doubt that many 20 year-old receive offers of cheap funeral insurance, for example. Computers everywhere know that I am about to receive my old age pension and will quite possibly need urological treatment before burial. Where did they get this information from? From other computers, of course, not doubt some of them governmental. It is all technically admirable but somewhat disturbing. ‘They’ know all about us, from our movements to our income to our tastes to our spending patterns. Once I received a call from a credit card company whose card I use.
‘Have you started gambling?’ they asked.
‘Certainly not,’ I replied.
‘We thought not. Someone has been using your card to place bets on a Swedish on-line roulette site.’
The computer knew that I was not a gambler and recognised the strange activity at once. In this instance its knowledge was to my advantage; but what else did it know about me?
I have a friend who lives quite without the internet and the mobile telephone. He has a computer but uses it seldom and is no adept. He writes letters and sends them by post. He pays for what he buys mostly in cash. Records of his life are therefore scanty. He is like the Invisible Man, at least to advertisers.
I admire him. The fact is that it takes courage these days to reject the appurtenances of modern technology, to live almost entirely without them. To do so has its disadvantages, but he loves freedom and privacy more than convenience. This is most unusual.
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