Can you hear me now?

An old woman touched my arm in the produce section. “Have you been watching the Olympics?”. “Sorry,” I said, “I don’t have television at home”. “Well, I gotta have a TV around, since I been alone.” And now hushed: “I know most of it is garbage, ads and so, but bein’ all alone, it helps. My husband’s been gone four years an’ I got no kids. Besides, this is probably the last Olympics I’ll live to see.”

And so for some the price of less-than-loneliness is the purchase of marketing. Or conversation with a stranger in a place of commerce.

Imagine for a minute that you are me, with a phone unlisted. At that number, I receive, on average, two personal phone calls per week. The other twenty-plus per month are telemarketers, often hawking subscriptions to the Minneapolis Star Tribune (I have a Minneapolis area code, but I don’t live there, thanks VOIP). Imagine waiting for a phone call on a Friday, finally the thing rings and it’s… Chase Card Services with an exceptional offer.

Now imagine you’re not just fucking around on a Friday. You’re trying to call your love in Sarajevo.
Hush, the pictures.

If you watched 4960, you saw the brutality of that first card. It was beautiful, Josef turned it in the light to see the glitter and glint of the foil. No doubt thinking it was Aida’s selection, not Staples. What will become of that kind of brutal missatribution when the inference engines have better ideas about your preferences, and the loves of those you love?

Connecting people with ads is a funny business. It’s obviously in flux, with shotgun billboards filling every degree of visual angle, every inch of public space and cocooning small-screen private life, with its targeted text ads based on machine-read email and intelligent inference. Machines already log what you do and what you buy, and putting that information together will help them serve ads to you better.

The old woman said these were her last Olympics. That’s something to know. There are lots of other things to know. Like maybe she was particularly fond of Pietarsaari ice-cream. It’s no stretch to imagine a future in which the first to learn of death (and perhaps report it) are those software agents so bent on learning about your life. No ice cream this month? Something must be wrong. It’s also conceivable, likely even, that the same engines will be able to write a suitable elegy. “On average, Jan spent three nights a week at church, and her weekends on the phone with her friends. She liked Pietarsaari ice-cream and subscribed to several travel magazines. Jan was fond of all things cat-related.”

Can I wrap this up neatly? No. Well, the film linked above says it better than I’ve ever seen it said, at least when talking about now. But for the future, every last late capitalist marketeer, software engineer, and product pusher had better think clearly about how and when their wares will be delivered and what it will mean when the screen can follow anywhere, anytime.

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