NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Hello? Hello? Is Someone Listening?

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.

NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Outsmarted!

Back when our daughter Patti was a tiny pumpkin, Russ and I already recognized that raising children is one of life’s greatest joys. What we didn’t understand back then was the biggest bonus that would come along with it.

We now find ourselves related to someone who knows how to set up a smart TV.

If, as you age, you’re getting the feeling you’re not quite as bright as you used to be, I’m here to assure you that you’re wrong. It’s not you and me. It’s that the most foolproof devices have been evolving faster than the midcentury brains that seek to master them, and they’ve managed to seize the upper hand.

In other words, the digital gadgets are pushing our buttons.

Adult life has been preparing us for this moment ever since we bought our first microwave oven back in 1975. Compared to the well-tamed electric burners on the stove beneath it, that modern miracle was a space-age marvel of demonic misdirection. It asserted its power with the very first task I asked of it, warming a couple of doughnuts.

Now, this was not the Einstein style of microwave where you’d just push a button labeled “warm doughnut.” This was its primitive precursor with a big round red target marked “start.”

Within the couple of minutes that seemed a reasonable starting point, it had turned my doughnuts to charcoal briquets.

We eventually figured out a judicious way to harness the beast. The instructions that used to come with newly purchased appliances, in English, were moderately helpful.

But that was just the beginning. As our appetite for electronics deepened, life grew ever more challenging. Digital clocks with obscure unmarked buttons replaced the sturdy kind whose hands moved around its face. Sewing machines grew silicon brains that took much more than pressing a floor pedal to be persuaded to stitch. Washing machines grew so many dials and cycles that they virtually demanded to know what brands of clothing were in your laundry basket.

Our calm, reliable television first turned surly with the advent of the VCR — early proof the tube would someday slip beyond our control. Please stand by. Soon those “technical difficulties” stations always warned us about would be all our own.

Once, back when my father brought home the enormous Emerson that was the first TV on our block, it limited its options to on-or-off and the channel dial. Operating the latter was especially easy in North Dakota in the 1960s, with only two stations to choose from — and just one that came in clearly. We could watch Milton Berle and Danny Thomas only so long as my little brother could be compelled to stand beside the TV table holding one of its rabbit ears.

Now, though, with a VCR, we not only had the far-more-sophisticated one-eyed monster dominating our living room. We also had a mysterious second box, not only with poorly marked buttons that could only be read lying on one’s belly on the floor, but also a digital clock and timer. With that, the generation just ahead of


ours simply gave up. Our parents turned to us, the analog version of today’s young digital elite, to set the hour. (Damn you, Daylight Savings Time!) When a power glitch upset the clock, despairing childless couples were known to resort to hiding the flashing red 12:00:00 with electrical tape.

Those were the days! For an all-too-brief span of years, Russ and I knew what we were doing. We transitioned early to computers and, then, to digital photography. We had worked out a gender-based division of digital responsibilities: He handled all the parts that required a screwdriver and getting on your knees under the desk, while I took to the keyboard to show my stuff. Why, I could write little programs in Microsoft Basic! My nicely organized boxes of back-up floppy disks — 5¼ inches, naturally — were the pride of the home-office set. I was wielding Photoshop before it even had a number. Meanwhile, Russ built a hardware geek’s dream stash of cords and connections and obscure little doodads.

The years passed. I threw the floppy disks in the garbage along with their offspring — 3 and one-half-inch disks and Zip disks that could be read only with the plug-in drive that never worked quite right. We wrote zillions of CDs and DVDs. Russ forgot which devices his inventory of spare cords went with. We converted Beta to VHS, half-inch tape to cassettes and starting tossing data up into the cloud. Our TV cabled up then started talking to satellites. The car radio went XM, drawing signals down from the stars … surely the greatest invention ever for those driving long hours across the FM-airwave-scarce prairie.

But somewhere along the way, the ever-marching world of digital data got away from us. Secure within our fading sense of competence, we still kept sliding forward … until the smart TV.

Let’s back up just a bit. In trying to tease programming off the Web, we first spent two years hatching various plans that didn’t quite work in our house. Roku. Amazon Fire. Chromecast. None delivered the easy results we longed for, which — oddly enough — did not include an always-sketchy Wi-Fi signal in the sunroom and juggling three separate sets of controls.

Enter the new Smart TV. It came in a box that held all our dreams. YouTube on the big screen! Netflix! Leisurely life-sized Skyping! Not to mention video knitting lessons from Craftsy …

There was no way on God’s green earth that Russ and I could ever hope to get it working.

And that’s when we realized advanced parenthood’s greatest blessing. Thank heavens for little girls … who grow up on computers, know the ins and outs of smartphones and marry other digital natives who can set up these genius electronics while I’m still trying to breach the bubble pack the batteries came in.

In the shade of our generation’s comeuppance, I do find solace in some of the new facts of life. No matter how smart our Millennials feel today, they’ll someday find themselves right where we are standing.

In our family, the world’s foremost grandbaby, their 6-month-old daughter, is already pushing buttons on her Fisher-Price favorites, born confident that music or an infant light show will ensue. Someday, she’ll leave her own parents far behind in a cloud of digital dust. But in the meantime, she can’t quite figure out how to eat pureed sweet potatoes from a spoon.