A Piece of My Mine

A colleague, an attorney, began her career in the Monroe County, New York Public Defender’s Office.  I’m from Monroe County.  I told her the name of my town.

“Hmm,” she said. “We didn’t work by town, we worked by zip.  What was your zip?”

“One four six one seven,” I said.

“Oh yeah, I know that zip.  Sex offenders.”

“Really?  Wow.  I, um, haven’t lived there for many years.”

“Oh, I’m sure!  Things change.  I’m just saying…”

Well, that was awkward.  It’s been more than a decade since my colleague was in the Monroe County PD’s office and 30 years since I moved away, but fact is, I did know of sex offenders in the old neighborhood.

It’s been a while since that conversation, but it rises in the mind from time to time, especially when I contemplate data mining.  If you’re not familiar with the term it’s used to describe how information about us is collected, packaged and sold.  It’s the answer to the question: How does Google make money?

At this point, Google makes money in a number of ways, but a biggie is selling all the information gleaned from our searches to advertisers that want to get products under our noses.  I’m not a big shopper, but in the past few weeks, I looked at a particular piece of furniture on line and also at a company where a friend just took a job and viola, almost every page I seem to open now has ads for that particular furniture piece and that friend’s new employer.

It’s been ever thus, at least for my lifetime.  A trope in the 1960 Billy Wilder film “The Apartment,” is that Jack Lemmon’s character, who works for an insurance company, knows his actuarial tables inside out, the notion being that in the modern world, there was nothing about a person that could not be reduced to a statistic.  And that was long before we began oversharing on social media.

Another friend took a job in the late 90s as a telephone operator for one of the big catalog clothing companies.  As soon as his phone began to ring, the computer – if it had a record of the incoming number – showed my friend the caller’s name, address, purchase history with the company, along with suggestions about items the customer might be susceptible to buying, if urged (script provided).  All before he’d answered the phone.

I could go on, we all could.  Pentium chips and mounds of data, mean information is out there, whether specific and personal – like the fact that a pair of pants I bought two years ago were tan chinos, no pleat, no cuff – or merely demographic – like the fact that I hail from a zip code known for sex offenders who cannot afford attorneys – and will be accessed by governments and corporations who will use it in an attempt to control my life.

That’s a bit over the top, isn’t it?  I don’t think so.  Certainly a corporation that makes pants would like to control my trouser-buying so all or most of my pants are bought from them.  Political parties would like to control my vote by getting my it out to the polls or by keeping it home where it can’t hurt their candidates.

What can we do about it?  Not much, unless we’re willing to either a) disconnect or b) learn our computer’s privacy tools (and actually use them) better than most of us do and that’s where the seduction comes in.  It’s so easy to use the web, shop online, there are so many options, what harm can a bit of data gathering do anyhow?  Maybe none.  Maybe quite a bit.

That’s the thing, whether we split atoms before we know where we’ll put the waste or put iPhones in our pocket that track our every move, our technology races at the speed of thought while our philosophy, our maturity – take as long, if not longer, than ever.

I’m not a sex offender.  I live in a community, not a zip code.  I am not defined by things I buy or browse on line.  One of the things I heard Billy Wilder say in his film is that none of us are mere numbers on an actuarial table.  We have agency, autonomy and will and we surrender those things at our peril.

© Mark Floegel, 2013


  1. Piet Sawvel
    Posted 2/1/2013 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Mark, an interesting post. Three days ago our local paper ran an op-ed from a conservative bemoaning the encroachment of big data. http://www.timescall.com/opinion/letterstotheeditor/ci_22474048/help-prevent-move-socialism The first half of Carl Brady’s piece seemed to be a straight-forward assessment of how Obama’s campaign suffocated Romney’s with its mastery of analytics. Fair enough. The second half spun out of control into the predictable foaming-at-the mouth rant of someone who feels is dragging us into the cold hell of socialism. I guess everyone has reason to be concerned that data can harvested to precision.

  2. Piet Sawvel
    Posted 2/8/2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Mark, one followup: Is Big Data to Barack Obama what Big Oil was to George W. Bush? http://qz.com/50693

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