Patricia and I are getting excited as the time for our Caribbean vacation draws near. That is indirectly the cause of some consternation. In preparation for our cruise, I bought a new bathing suit online after deciding the one-style-fits-all at Costco was not to my liking. Within minutes of closing the order, I checked my own blog to see if anyone had commented on my latest post, and was surprised to see an advertisement for swimming accessories alongside the post. Similar things happened at other sites I navigated to. Welcome to targeted advertising! This makes me more inclined to use one of the anonymizing services offered online, but if I signed up for one, would I then get a lot of advertisements about anonymizing services?

This phenomena is not unique to me by any means. You are probably reading this on a page that also contains advertising that is unlikely to be about bathing suits. Think about where you have surfed lately and what you have searched. Then see if that tracks with the advertisements you are exposed to.

While I am a bit creeped out knowing that my actions are being monitored for mercantile vulnerabilities, there are more serious implications. We all know that this is an era of highly polarized politics. I think that is bad for society. More progress is made when people are willing to listen to each other and also listen to other people’s opinions than when we turn a deaf ear to opposing viewpoints. Progress is stifled when people only listen to things they already agree with. Yet we are seduced into sinking into a polarized political morass. To see how this works, assume you have two different Internet accounts (different identities, etc.). Use one account to search on some liberal subjects (good things Democrats have done) and use the other to search on conservative subjects (good things Republicans have done).

Targeted Ads and PolarizationWhat happens?

Shortly you will notice that at the top of any political search you will have sites favorable to either the liberal or conservative bias expressed on that computer. The algorithms used for presenting search results will direct people who show a bias toward places with the same bias. Just as someone decided that because I bought a bathing suit, I must be interested in aquatic sports, someone also decided that people with a particular political outlook are more interested in seeing things that support their bias than question it. Multiply that by the millions of people using the Internet, and the slight nudge toward supporting biases becomes a major force in deciding how our society reacts.

How do you decide what to buy, what do believe, and how to vote?

If you think that you understand advertising and it does not affect your actions, ask yourself why advertising continues. If the effects of advertising can be easily neutralized by knowledge of the goals, then one would expect businesses not to waste money on a useless venture. Businessmen tend to spend money wisely, and advertising expenses always seem to grow even in times of recession. Your actions are determined in part by advertising campaigns. You buy what has been advertised. (A similar argument asks who pays for all the lights in Las Vegas if you go there to win.)

Can people with relatively open minds, but a slight bias toward liberal or conservative opinions, be influenced to migrate further toward the right or left? Yes. It is just more advertising. The zealots at either end of the spectrum are relatively immune because they already have the disease. The broad, middle-of-the-road opinions feel gentle and continuous nudges to move outward. The middle vanishes and we all lose. And that is the important message here. Everyone loses when the middle is excluded.

If you believe, as I do, that extreme polarization is an unhealthy trend, what can we do to stem the tide? Censorship is a bad alternative. Regulation of Internet content goes against the whole idea of open communication. The question becomes one of privacy and choice. Should my online purchases be private? Who owns the information about my purchases? Can retailers legitimately sell information that opens me to assault by other retailers? Should that be the case? Who owns information about my search patterns?

People who shrug and say that we have the choice to buy and search online or not probably have not thought through the consequences of online selling of personal information. It is more than a personal choice when a whole society is involved. That is, you could also say I can avoid being in an airplane accident by not flying, and that is true. But that simplistic alternative does not address the societal concern of safety for the transportation industry.

Information is a peculiar commodity. When I purchase a bathing suit, both the retailer and I have information about the transaction. I could turn my information into a source of income by writing about it, but not many people do that. On the other hand, the retailer with exactly the same information about the transaction can make significant money by packaging it along with other transactions and selling it to the highest bidder. I could not sell the same information to advertisers.

If I search on issues discussing the anti-gay marriage movement, that does not mean I agree with it. It could mean that I am a concerned citizen who wants to know what other people think. But if my research results in being flooded with ads supporting the anti-gay marriage movement, and if we believe advertising works, then my open-minded research has become a tool for converting my beliefs. Can I prevent the dissemination of my personal data without violating the rights of businesspeople who share transactions with me?

People have successfully patented genes that are essential for my body to work correctly. Can other people claim similar ownership of my personal habits?

Maybe we should just give up and acknowledge that the expectation of privacy has radically changed. Still, I do not need more bathing suits.