Of all things, Russ and I were talking about bath mats. I’d just taken a shower downstairs, and I’d noticed that the mundane incumbent — already bearing the stains of years of feline hairball disposal — had begun shedding bits of fuzz and flakes of latex all over the tile floor. A trip to Target seemed to be in order soon.
When I logged into Facebook the next morning, the first thing I saw was an Amazon ad. For a bath mat. Not just any bath mat — the precise unusual shape the room required, in the perfect color and even the fiber content I had in mind.
Cue the music from “The Twilight Zone”!
We all know by now the World Wide Web tabulates nuggets of data from every move we make online … the sites we visit, the purveyors we follow, the people and events we mention, the answers we search for on everything from air fryers to eczema. But is someone listening, too?
Until last night, shopping for a new bath mat had honestly never crossed my mind — not in what we naively consider real life nor via Wi-Fi. I have never googled anything of the sort. I have never even typed those two words together until now — not in either email or a text. Bath mats just don’t seem to generate much conversation.
And no, we do not have Alexa or another so-called “personal assistant” device hanging on every word that’s uttered in our household. I’m even pretty sure our venerable microwave oven is too elderly to overhear us.
So … where did that ad come from? I’ve had the creepy feeling ever since that someone or something is eavesdropping on every word. Tin foil hats are not really my style. Otherwise, though, rational explanation of this cosmic-level coincidence eludes me. Tell me this: How many ads for unusually shaped off-white bath rugs have you noticed lately in your own newsfeed?
What next? First, of course, I ordered that perfect bath mat.
Then I resolved to never again think out loud about the bathroom.
When I shared this odd little story with several friends, they began showering me with their own weird synchronicities. We could explain many. Not all, though.
By now, everyone who’s even marginally tech-savvy has gotten used to seeing ads for books or music or shoes we’ve perused online pop up wherever we go next. We understand, at least vaguely, how Big Data and artificial intelligence logarithms enable the stalking. We’ve made peace with marketers gleaning sometimes-uncanny insights from our googling and browsing.
Click once; be tracked forever. We get it! If you’ve ever clicked on, say, a cat-lover’s T-shirt but dropped out before the “buy” button … you know for sure it’ll dog your cyber footsteps like a forlorn puppy.
Marketers are simply thrilled. “Artificial intelligence and marketing will make strides together,” one industry report crows happily. It goes on: “In 2017, marketing platforms collected and stored information such as site usage, browsing patterns, search history and content preferences to create customer profiles and behavior marketing strategies that help marketers create custom messages to address these prospects.” (It doesn’t mention if that data documents whether you prefer showers or baths. Yet.)
It doesn’t take an Alexa to pry open the doors of your private life. Our devilish devices already watch and listen to us. Smartphones are little tattletales. Next time you install an app, actually read the permissions before you hit “agree”: Chances are you’re giving it access to everything but your underwear drawer.
A year or so ago, tech experts revealed many so-called “smart TVs” — the kind that “learn” your voice, the better to respond to spoken commands — are always listening, even when you think they sleep. The recordings go … somewhere. A.I. is studying your speech, theoretically to serve you even better when you’re too lazy to reach for the remote to change the channel. While distant humans are almost certainly not listening to desultory conversation in your family room right now or spying on TVs that support Skype with their tiny cameras … they could.
Creepy? That seems to depend on your generation. To the majority of 20-something, the tech is amazing and cool. Digital since birth, they argue, “What’s not to like? It makes life easier.”
Some of us, though, are old enough to remember when pulling the shades and closing the front door guaranteed privacy. For us, it’s simply hair-raising. Self-aware gadgets so skilled at watching and listing drive shivers deep into the soul of anyone who remembers George Orwell’s “1984.” In that classic novel of a dystopian future ruled by Big Brother, the protagonist hides from the sinister “telescreens” that monitor him, even in his abode. Orwell wrote his prescient book in 1949, when TVs were still dumb little convex tubes inside huge cabinets with rabbit ears sticking up on top. Who (but he) ever dreamed they’d someday watch us back?
Paranoid? Perhaps. So let’s test it. A friend suggested we discuss the weirdest random topic we could imagine in front of my phone. How about old-time potato mashers? You’d be surprised how much we found to say about smashing boiled Russets. She even shared her mother’s favorite trick for getting them lump-free and creamy — squeezing the spuds through a potato ricer.
The next morning, several ads were featured on my smartphone, just like any other day … but with a difference. No, the kind of grandma-style hand masher we’d reminisced about wasn’t among them. But what did show up? A handheld appliance called the Dash Masha … and an electric rice cooker.
Close enough? I think so. Keep it to yourself.