The University of North Alabama and the University of South Alabama: two colleges 6 hours away from one another, each perched on opposing ends of the Western side of the state. This Friday, both campuses will be deserted due to fall break.
That means I’ll get to see my kid for the first time in three weeks. He’s off being a good Jaguar instead of a Lion, like me, and–I hope–getting ready to dazzle on the midterms in anticipation of making the Dean’s List. I haven’t heard from him much, aside from the occasional text frantically asking me if he has a good research question or if there are other ways to jazz up a dish of ramen.
I probably won’t see him much this weekend either; I’ll be too busy doing the mountain of laundry he’ll undoubtedly cram into his backseat.
I miss him, really. I’ll be happy to spend time with him. That said, I’m also enjoying the hell out of being an empty nester.
I’m guessing that might be why I received a targeted ad from Facebook regarding family planning from the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Amazon must know I’m a little too fond of whiskey as well.
“Oh, pish,” you say, because you are a time traveler from the 19th century who still uses words like “pish.” “It’s called a coincidence. There’s no way the internet knows your young ‘un is all moved out and you are reveling in the ability to walk around your house without pants.”
A couple of years ago, I would have said the same thing. Then Walter Kirn ruined my life. His feature piece in the November 2015 issue of The Atlantic was aptly titled “If You’re Not Paranoid, You’re Crazy.”
I fancy myself a hyper-rational fellow who cuts through the obvious smoke and mirrors. I’ll eat a GMO. I had that sterling college freshman vaccinated. I know “chemtrails” are just condensation. Sorry, folks, but I’m convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman and the fellow on the grassy knoll was just a dude with an umbrella.
Thanks to Kirn, I’m also certain my electronic devices are spying on me.
He opens his narrative by relating a simple story. Strutting around the kitchen one morning while wearing his newfangled fitness watch, he began a search for walnuts to put in his oatmeal. He called to his wife, asking where they were, but she had the water running and couldn’t hear. Finding them on his own, he sat down to eat his goop. As he opened his smart phone to the app that paired with the watch, an ad banner on the side reminded him to eat more walnuts.
He muses: “The devices spoke to each other behind my back—I’d known they would when I ‘paired’ them—but suddenly I was wary of their relationship. Who else did they talk to, and about what? And what happened to their conversations? Were they temporarily archived, promptly scrubbed, or forever incorporated into the ‘cloud,’ that ghostly entity with the too-disarming name?”
It was oddly specific, but many coincidences are. The first time it happens, we usually blink, mutter “huh,” and shrug it off. It’s when the “walnut moments” began to build up that we start to question our sanity. Kirn shares numerous others, and I’ve certainly had my share.
Case in point, during spring break of this year, my buddy Geoff and I jetted down to New Orleans because … well, it’s New Orleans. As is my custom when in the greatest American city, I turn my mobile data off. Geoff, on the other hand, is a bit of a tech fanatic. He too was wearing one of those fancy fitness bands, and he had his car stereo paired with his phone via Bluetooth.
We tore down 20/59, bayou bound, singing along with the classic rock station on Pandora. I kept stomping my foot when the Jeff Healey Band’s superb cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down” came on. Geoff is a little younger and doesn’t remember the 80s the way I do.
“Who’s this?” he asked.
Oh, boy. We both knew what was coming. I launched into a sermon about the blind Canadian blues singer. I mentioned his appearance in the movie Road House, his penchant for covering the best delta blues numbers in existence, his song “Angel Eyes” and how it was on everyone’s romantic first-date mix tape when I was lad. Sadly, I also had to inform him that Healey had recently shuffled off this mortal coil and was up in that big juke joint in the sky, presumably rocking out with Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Hendrix.
Upon arrival, we did what any self-respecting, non-tourist would do in the Crescent City: what I like to call the Frenchman Street Crawl–starting at the Dragon’s Den and moving our way up, having a drink at every bar until we reached the Praline Connection where we had a filling soul food dinner.
The next morning, as I was waiting on him to shower and get ready for our excursion to the Aquarium and a ride on the St. Charles Streetcar, I popped open my laptop and logged on to Facebook.
I froze, staring blankly at the intrusive “Pages You May Like” that hovered beneath a few friend’s posts. The Jeff Healey Band. But my mobile data was off!
His wasn’t. Nor was that stupid watch that counted his steps. Nor was his Pandora account. How did it know I was the one giving the 15-minute lecture about the greatest blind musician this side of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder?
Simple. He’d tagged me in a couple of photos from Frenchman Street.
Also, can we interest you in a really cheap flight to Khartoum?
To roughly paraphrase Healey, “What did I do?/What did I say,/To turn your prying eyes my way.”
I honestly contemplated deleting all my social media accounts at that point, but even that wouldn’t have mattered. This one wasn’t even a direct result of my behavior, just a glancing ad targeted at me because algorithms have gotten far too sophisticated. Besides, I was going to be clicking my camera phone around the city like Dorothy clicking those ruby slippers. When I got back to the hotel, a massive photodump was going to Facebook to show all my friends that my life was much, much better than theirs.
And who has time to worry about such trivial things when in NOLA? Too many places to drink and beers to see.
Not until I was safe and sound in my own Alabama domicile did I start to ruminate on it in depth. What did it matter that ad execs used my metadata to figure out what might convince me to buy an entire set of Captain America: Civil War 12-inch figurines?
After all, I did teach college composition, and it’s pretty much a prerequisite that we have to talk about advertising. I knew their gimmicks. I knew they were annoying. I was one of the rare folk who watched the Super Bowl for the football game and not just to drool over the commercials. What harm could possibly come from it?
Have we ever stopped to wonder who else is holding the Sherlock-Holmes-style magnifying glass over our online footprint?
Yes, I am from Alabama, but, no, I’m not the stereotype a non-resident envisions: a survivalist with a bunker and a supply of guns who believes in FEMA camps and Operation: Jade Helm. Matter of fact, I’m generally quite fond of government. I like the interstate, the fire department, and National Public Radio.
That doesn’t mean I want them privy to everything in my Google search history, my text messages, and the books I check out of the library. I’m an eclectic fellow who likes to chase odd avenues of information. My thirst for knowledge leads me down some strange paths. Still, I’m a peaceful, law-abiding citizen who just wants to know as much as he can.
In January of 2012, for example, I lead a discussion at the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library entitled “Unchained Medley: How Tarantino Made B-Movies Grade A.” Mostly, it was to enlighten the attendees about the rich history of paracinema that inspired Tarantino’s then-most-recent release Django Unchanined. The flick was controversial, however, and I’m not one to shy away from addressing such matters.
Therefore, I did a lot of research. Apparently, white supremacists get really butthurt when you tell them they’re bad people for being racists. The alt-right underbelly of the internet was abuzz with talk about a movie that dared to revel in slave owners getting their comeuppance. In order to hear their slanted, ‘effed-up side of the story, I frequented a few message boards on such sites as Stormfront, a blatant Neo-Nazi website.
This from the guy who sent the governor of Alabama a thank-you email last year when he agreed to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol building. I’m in no way a supporter of a white-supremacist ideology. In fact, I abhor it. But if you took a peek at my Googling on that day …
I also had the wild hair shortly afterwards to write a novel. I envisioned it to be “one part Buffy, one part James Bond, and one part Tarantino.” It sucked royally, so the 70,000 some-odd words I wrote will live forever only as a buried file on my flash drive. Nonetheless, one plot point involved a terrorist plot to blow up the Tower Bridge in London.
One night I intently studied Google Street Views of the bridge, calculated how long it would take to sprint across the length of it, researched how to make homemade TNT, and called up an escape route on Google Maps that involved a boat trip down the Thames, across the North Sea, and then on land through Antwerp to Budapest.
In light of recent events, I’m actually a little surprised I haven’t had some stern-visaged g-man in a nondescript black suit show up to ask me a few questions.
Everything I’ve ever done online has been innocent. Take it out of context, however, and a patchwork narrative could easily be tossed together painting me as the next Timothy McVeigh. As Kirn puts it, “They say you can quote the Bible to support almost any conceivable proposition, and I could only imagine the range of charges that selective looks at my data might render plausible.”
Orwell’s classic novel 1984 opens with Winston Smith huddled in a corner, afraid that his “telescreen” (basically, a flat-screen, LCD television) might be watching and listening to him. Upon publication, the thought was terrifying. Last year, we found out Samsung Smart TVs were doing just that.
Thankfully our phones, the devices we keep on us at all times and lean on heavily at any given moment would be so nefarious. I mean, Siri is my gal. We’re tight.
Just like Dave and HAL.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating moments in Kirn’s narrative is when he speaks to a millennial in Idaho. Making small talk, he regales the young man with the tales of journey he’s taken down the rabbit hole. Rather than being unnerved, the teenager just shrugs it off. “Surveillance, he said, was pointless, a total waste. The powers that be should instead invite people to confess their secrets willingly. He envisioned vast centers equipped with mics and headphones where people could speak in detail and at length about their experiences, thoughts, and feelings, delivering in the form of monologues what the eavesdroppers could gather only piecemeal.”
I’ve already accepted that I’m old. To my students, I might as well be Fred Flinstone, sliding down the tail of the diplodocus when the whistle blew, if my students even knew what the Flintstones were.
But I do recall a time before social media, a time when privacy still meant something. I’m of a generation that still believes that what I do when I lock the doors and cinch the curtains of my own home is my own damned business, provided nothing is harmed in doing so. And nothing is. In those moments, I’m kicked back in my recliner with two mutts in my lap watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. until I fall asleep.
My age group, like the generation before, was terrified by Orwell’s Big Brother. Their generation is watching a show called Big Brother, which is terrifying in its own right.
Thankfully, a few people in this world are older than I–Kirn among them. He states, “But I am too old for this embrace of nakedness. I still believe in the boundaries of my own skull and feel uneasy when they are crossed.”
So I’m paranoid? Why shouldn’t I be? If anything, I’m not paranoid enough. As I’m typing this I realize that there’s not a piece of duct tape over the webcam embedded in my laptop, something that Kirn, the founder of Facebook, and the director of the CIA have all encouraged us to do.
I need to take care of that immediately. So, those of you who are watching, would you please be so kind as to let me go put on some pants first?