Artistic Licence column, SBP

Artistic Licence April 16Here’s a thing that won’t surprise any of you to hear: I’m not a perfect person, and that’s particularly the case when it comes to my consumption of the internet. I know it’s wrong, but I’m as guilty as anyone of a spot of Facebook or Instagram stalking of handsome men at times, particularly after a few tipples down the pub. I will also admit to having googled myself (if you tell me you haven’t, I’m unlikely to believe you). And I have a case of internet-related hypochondria: I have a profound ability to diagnose myself with terrible diseases thanks to the availability of the world wide web. Woe betide the poor doctor who encounters me in their surgery: I’ve already got all the answers for them. Basically I’m a curious type and if the internet wants to provide me with answers to my questions, well, I’ll seek those answers out: I’ll do it with relish.

But for all that I now know lots more about life, health and other people, there’s a problem here: my computer also knows far too much about me, and — much to my mortification — it seems hellbent on making active use of that information. Sometimes it feels like my computer and my smartphone are on a mission to shame me in front of other people. My computer and smartphone have the capacity to do this because of cookies — those small files saved to your computer which operate in the background while you’re online, sending information about your browsing to third parties. It seems impossible to land on a website now without them letting you know that for all the information you’re gathering, they’re also gathering knowledge about you.

Take the hypochondria issue. The other night, I was investigating online a minor ailment that was concerning me (of course it was). Somehow I ended up on a site that led me to believe I had certain cancer. Fascinated, I read on, correlating my (largely imaginary) symptoms to the site’s authoritative list. The following day, I was doing an interview with Radiohead’s manager, a smart chap in an excellent suit, who looked like he’d never suffered so much as a cold in his life. I’d brought my laptop with me and he asked if he could use it to check something online. We went to Google, but for some reason the latest update on my computer had created a canny improvisation: rather than simply showing me Google, it elected to display, in a joyous montage, the sites I had recently visited. Sites like this one: ‘The top five indicators that you have skin cancer.’ Gulp. We both stared at it, and politely tried to look elsewhere.

My phone is at this shaming lark as well. I bought a new phone recently, the iphone SE, and now, if you flick left on your home screen, Siri will offer you a list of four suggestions as to who you should text that day. This is all well and good if you’re in a committed relationship, but a little dubious if you’re not. Frankly, having spent two weeks with this new phone, I’ve come to the conclusion that Siri is doing its level best to persuade me to text unsuitable men from my phone book. (I think my mother needs to have a word with it.) Facebook is just as bad. These days, it logs your search engine history and actually coughs it all up again immediately, and without you asking, when you go to the search tab. This is basically a list of everything you don’t want to see when you’re searching the site in the company of others.

I try my best to keep my technology in check. I delete my search engine history often. I unpin sites from my home page. And I try to do the simplest thing of all: be a better person and keep my less wise internet searches to a minimum. But human nature being what it is, everyone’s going to make mistakes sometimes — and sometimes they will be embarrassing.

I heard a story recently of a man who wrote to a newspaper to complain about the saucy adverts that kept popping up on his Facebook account. “Disgusting!” he wrote. “Inappropriate.” Alas for him, he hadn’t realised the adverts were linked to his personal preference for online pornography. Facebook had sent him advertising links based on his own search engine. There’s a lesson in this.

In 2016, it’s best to regard your devices with both respect and healthy suspicion, because whatever you might tell your friends, family and lovers about who you are, your computer knows better. Your computer has your secrets — and it may just use them against you.


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