Numerical Insanity: What Does “Personal Information” Mean?

Remember these? Twenty years ago…

I love my computer–that is, when I don’t want to throw it in the trash after too much time online. But certainly I have enjoyed my access to international news, book clubs, and reviews for years.

As a woman who abandoned math so long ago I barely remember what π is (except as a Greek letter), I seldom contemplate the not-very-personal data gathered by internet companies. Personal?  It comes from the Latin persona: mask, false face, character, a part, or person.  We may show the mask to people online, or perhaps gussied-up bits of who we are. (See Instagram.) But personal matters are confided to your dearest friend, your husband,  your book club,  or support group. Some people prefer online relationships because, on the surface, people you don’t know seem more sympathetic.  And real people are often disappointing: you do meet controlling people who try to shut you up about personal matters.

We hate having data gathered, but I say, Knock yourself out if you want to know how often I visit The New York Times.  Of course the mysterious data-devouring technology also gobbles information about how rapidly we scroll down the pages, or our weird pauses in the reading of articles–perhaps Kat went to the bathroom here.

But alas, the seemingly pointless, and doubtless very boring, information collected by internet companies is the point of the internet, as I understand it. People’s mild enjoyment of YouTube, writing Facebook posts, and other social media are a byproduct of sales. Stores, big companies, browsers, newspapers, e-readers, neurotics, and Russians gather this data and use it–sometimes for sales, sometimes for control. (I learned the latter from Homeland and 24!)

Online life seems to prepare us to anthropomorphize A.I.  Are Alexa and Siri our friends?  In books and movies, AI can be threats or products of human sexploitation (Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein), while others are our friends (Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and the TV show Better Than Us).

I think we can agree that e-books are our friends (Kindle, Nook, and Kobo), but why gather data about what we underline and bookmark? Enough!

We are human, and we are more than our consumption of goods.  We should be respected as humans.

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