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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Our data doppelgängers

- Bruce Willis 'uncanny valley' android in Surrogates

Reading Data Doppelgängers and the Uncanny Valley of Personalization

You know those targeted ads that seem to follow you everywhere you go on the internet ... I get the weirdest ones for which I cannot imagine the causal link, like those asking me to peruse photos of single Asian women (WHAT?). The uncanny valley description (I posted about the uncanny valley here - The Other and the Same) so nails this phenomena. Here's just a bit from the Atlantic article mentioned above ...

[...] Google thinks I’m interested in parenting, superhero movies, and shooter games. The data broker Acxiom thinks I like driving trucks. My data doppelgänger is made up of my browsing history, my status updates, my GPS locations, my responses to marketing mail, my credit card transactions, and my public records. Still, it constantly gets me wrong, often to hilarious effect. I take some comfort that the system doesn’t know me too well, yet it is unnerving when something is misdirected at me. Why do I take it so personally when personalization gets it wrong?

Right now we don’t have many tools for understanding the causal relationship between our data and how third parties use it. When we try to figure out why creepy ads follow us around the Internet, or why certain friends show up in our newsfeeds more than others, it’s difficult to discern coarse algorithms from hyper-targeted machine learning that may be generating the information we see. We don’t often get to ask our machines, "What makes you think that about me?"

Personalization appeals to a Western, egocentric belief in individualism. Yet it is based on the generalizing statistical distributions and normalized curves methods used to classify and categorize large populations. Personalization purports to be uniquely meaningful, yet it alienates us in its mass application. Data tracking and personalized advertising is often described as “creepy.” Personalized ads and experiences are supposed to reflect individuals, so when these systems miss their mark, they can interfere with a person’s sense of self. It’s hard to tell whether the algorithm doesn’t know us at all, or if it actually knows us better than we know ourselves. And it's disconcerting to think that there might be a glimmer of truth in what otherwise seems unfamiliar. This goes beyond creepy, and even beyond the sense of being watched.

We’ve wandered into the uncanny valley ......

Apparently, you can tell Google not to follow you around.


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