Little Bits of Me in Your History

I get the emails at least several times weekly. Often they come from Amazon, or L.L. Bean, or some other online store that I’ve frequented in the past, offering new sales, recommending new items, dressed up in classy design work to make the concept of buying appealing to me.

Some of them are better than others. I buy clothes from L.L. Bean frequently, but that’s about all. Unless it involves beach-combing or the occasional hike, I’m not really the outdoors type. So, when I get an email about a sale on, for example, kayaks, I’m amused a bit.

Amazon tends to be better. Often, I receive book recommendations from them that are already things that I own from elsewhere (I buy more often from Barnes & Noble). What’s specifically interesting are the book recommendations that I receive when I log into Amazon, because they’re an excellent sampling of my reading interests for, say, the past few months, combined with purchases that I made while in grad school. Amazon was my best friend in grad school (this was before I became a Nook owner, and before Amazon treated independent authors as poorly as it now does), because I could save nearly half the cost of a textbook by purchasing it there. Of course, that was all that I had money to purchase, aside from an occasional comic book at the time, so Amazon has a purchase history full of theology and religion texts. One would think that was all I read for three years.

Well, come to think of it…it sort of was, though by pressure of schedule, not choice.

In any case, my point is that, if some secret agency convened around a table in a smoke-filled room, or some alien race hacked into the world’s grid to examine the life of Dave (hey, it could happen), they could gain a wealth of information simply through my purchase histories. I moved from theology texts back to literature, to plays, to science fiction…this was all the process of my settling back into the groove of my natural self after having been displaced for the three years it took me to get that master’s degree.

Similar clues could be gained by sifting through my iTunes purchase history. One could not only quickly discover that I’m a sucker for police procedural dramas and quirky science fiction programs (and we won’t even discuss how many seasons of Cops are currently parked on an extra hard drive), but also see the sort of religious identity crisis in which I spent about two years of my life, based on the music that I purchased.

And I don’t even want to think about how much a certain search engine knows about my life, inspiration, academic plans, and who knows what else.

In fact, if a person can by judged by what he or she reads, listens to, and writes (and I think that’s a fairly safe judgement, as long as those things are looked at in their full scope and not in isolated segments), there are about four online retailers and service providers who, individually, could form a relatively coherent picture of me. With their powers combined, a professional profiler could be out of a job, and I would become suddenly very transparent.

That’s a little frightening when you think about it, and I don’t think that the Internet pioneered this potential for profiled knowledge as much as it perfected what was already there. What I buy for myself, what I buy for gifts (and the people to whom they are shipped) to read, to watch, or to listen to are in large measure descriptive of who I am. And that’s not even bringing social networks into the picture yet, because then the waters can become very murky, indeed.

I don’t think that this is a bad thing: I can opt out of whichever of these emails I choose, and I occasionally see a good recommendation when perusing them. It’s just that when I think of the amount of me that’s accumulated on various servers in the hands of various companies and corporations and private interests…the amount of privacy that I sacrifice for the sake of a certain lifestyle…I suddenly become protective of things. Progressive as I am in my view of technology, I won’t go entirely gently into that good night.

I just don’t know how much to rage against the dying of what quickly becomes antiquity.

Photo Attribution: ajc1 under Creative Commons

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