Cookie monsters: Why the internet is getting too smart for our own good

Cookie monsters: Why the internet is getting too smart for our own good
OPINION: I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it, but Facebook is really convinced I’m in the market for a feminization-suit. Does the Zuck know me better than I know myself?

If you don’t know what a fem-suit is, please take a moment to enjoy your last uncorrupted seconds, then read on.  

As I’ve recently found out, a fem-suit, aka a doll-suit, is a ‘feminine-looking’ full-body latex costume, complete with all the relevant parts, which men (presumably) wear as a kind of light-fetish gender-swapping dress-up (presumably). Simply slip into this admirably realistic rubber approximation of the female form, zip up the back, and, I don’t know, hang around the house or something.

Think White Chicks cosplay for the home user.

To each his own, of course, and if that’s your thing, please, carry on, but for my own tastes and proclivities, the doll-suit is 100% pure, uncut nightmare fuel.

So why is Facebook so darn certain that I’m in the market to buy one? What started as a trickle of ads has turned into a flood, with my Facebook feed producing alert after alert suggesting all manner of rubber faux-female apparel—masks, gloves and full bodysuits—with no apparent end in sight.

Yes, I’ll admit that I probably brought this one on myself and perhaps it is time for reflection regarding the regrettable links I may or may not have clicked in the past.

And let’s face it, Facebook’s hi-tech tracking software probably knows more about me than I know myself.

But who hasn’t been spooked by the accuracy of an obviously targeted post at one time or another? During one of my better moments I visited a single health and fitness site and, for the next week, every site I visited was populated with those annoying ‘Mike Chang’s Six Pack Shortcuts’ ads.  

These days, when we peer into our technology, we often find our technology peering back.  

There’s the now infamous tale of US retail giant Target’s frighteningly accurate customer tracking software that figured out a teen girl was pregnant long before her parents did.

The story goes like this:

A man stormed into a local Target angrily demanding to see the manager.

“My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”

The manager apologised and the fuming man went on his way. A few days later however, the manager received a phone call from the formerly irate customer.

“I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”

Back in 2012, I read about some rather aggressive tracking cookies on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign website, which were providing conspicuously pointed content to repeat visitors. Visit the Romney site, leave, then return later, and you’ll find content tailored specifically to where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing.

For example, if you visit the Romney site, then, say, a religious website, upon return to Romney’s site you’ll be greeted with Mitt’s stance on religion (spoiler alert: he’s for it). Visit a pro-gun site, and Mitt will tell you how his cold dead hands are all over 2nd Amendment.

The article didn’t mention Mitt’s position on fem-suits, but I think I can guess.

And it’s not just Mitt who is flip-flopping here, it’s everything online, and that’s both a blessing and curse.

Clever search engines deliver personalised results based on your past behaviour, crunching that collected data to present you with its best guess for what it is you’re looking for. Similarly, newsfeeds are tailored to your past clicking behaviour, giving you more of what you interact with and less of what you don’t.

On the surface this might look like it’s good for everyone – users get to enjoy relevant, easy-to-find information and advertisers get to target their content effectively – but it certainly has the potential to skew your perspective on things. And if the information you’re receiving is filtered to be congruent with your expectations, isn’t that information somehow corrupted in the process?

I’m not sure if I want the content I receive to be based on unrelated websites I’ve visited, my age or income, or some dodgy link my friend Gerry sent me. (Quit sending me those links, Gerry.)

Sometimes you need to know how things are, not how they ‘aint. Sometimes you just want the facts. And a friend that only ever tells you what you want to hear is no friend at all.

Worse still is that it’s all done in a way that’s so subtle you usually aren’t even aware it’s happening. Sometimes.

I don’t know about you, but the whole thing gives me the creeps, and for a guy who recently was this close to buying a fem-suit, I know the creeps.

Thankfully, resistance is not futile. Google lets you opt out of personalised searches, there’s a way to do it for Facebook, and Ghostery is a good way to catch the stuff that falls in between.  

So that’s what I’m doing. Because, inconvenient, inefficient, or infuriating as it may be, we need to expose ourselves to competing ideas now and then. Life is ambiguous and the sooner we make peace with that, the better we’ll all be.   

And with that my journey into the uncanny valley appears to be drawing to a close. My Facebook feed’s insistence on the wisdom of purchasing a deluxe full-body gender-bending costume is subsiding, and returning to its old infatuation with upcoming concerts at the Powerstation, hot deals for Hell Pizza, and lonely 40+ singles in my area.

Which isn’t really a perfect match at all, but, for now, is close enough.