Opinion » Cybernaut


I think I’m paranoid…



Watching what passes for news on the 24 hour networks, I have to wonder what the intention is — what part of the news is just catering to the masses with salacious stories about celebrities and fad diets, and what part of the coverage is contrived to divert your focus from the important questions. It’s like someone snapping their fingers in your face, shouting “look up here right now!” while something kind of spooky is taking place in the shadows behind them.

Always up for a good conspiracy theory (I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out how they get the caramel in a Caramilk bar), I naturally tend towards the evil-in-the-shadows theory when it comes to most things.

Like advertising.

I visit Cracked.com periodically for their humorous lists — recent gems include “6 Famous Songs That Don’t Mean What You Think”, “6 Great Action Heroes (Who Should Be Convicted of Murder)”, and “20 Jobs Too Awesome to Exist” — when I stumbled across a piece called “The 5 Creepiest Advertising Techniques of the (Near) Future”.

A lot of the things I suspected, or have heard of before, but it was jarring to see it all in one place, and to realize how much revolves around the Internet.

Basically, there are a lot of companies out there who want you as a customer and want to be able to tailor their advertising messages to increase their chance of succeeding. To do that, they have to get to know you. They want to know what movies and television shows you watch, what car you drive, what websites you visit, and how you spend your free time. If you’re anti-brand and buy from small companies, they want to know what those companies are so they can acquire the labels for themselves.

The only way to get this information is to spy on you.

And if you’re not bothered that a few companies are tracking what you do, keep in mind the fact that American telecom companies after 9/11 had no problem turning phone and Internet data over to the U.S. government, despite the fact that they didn’t have a warrant or a specific target in mind.

Companies can use the data they collect, and sell that information to other companies. A whole data trading industry has popped up where people sell your valuable personal information to telemarketers, spammers, and other bottom feeders.

According to the Cracked.com article, which itself has links to other stories, you’re probably being spied on by TiVo and your PVR, while every site you visit is being tracked by Google to allow it to one day customize search results based on your browsing history.

Another company called BuzzMetrics scours chat rooms, blogs, Facebook pages, MySpace pages, and just about everywhere else looking for buzzwords. The goal is to figure out what people are excited about, and use that information to tell companies what kind of marketing campaign they’ll need.

Another marketing strategy covered by Cracked is customized ads. Instead of packaging televisions shows with commercials, the strategy would allow cable companies to insert specific ads for products you can afford. For example, in the same commercial break a low income family could get commercials for macaroni and cheese and debt consolidation services, a middle class family could get ads for vacation spots and group cell phone plans, and a wealthy family could get ads for the new Mercedes and the local plastic surgery centre. The program could even differentiate between male and female, single or married, dog or cat.

Another way you could be burned is through the GPS technology in your cell phone. Imagine walking by a burger chain that you visit occasionally, and suddenly getting a text message offering two for one burgers.

There’s really not all that much you can do about this, because none of it is illegal per se. The safest thing is to assume at all times that someone is watching the websites you visit, the movies you rent, the television shows you watch, and the products you buy on your credit card or using your customer card.

Then try to take everything with a grain of salt. The first step to resisting marketing is to recognize marketing when you see it. Don’t give in!


Bill Gates retires

Microsoft CEO Bill Gates officially stepped back from his lead role in the company last week to concentrate his energies on donating billions of dollars to charities and non-profits. It’s a classy way to end a career that changed the world.

While not always popular and often accused of stealing ideas from others, Microsoft rose to power in such a way that they made computing affordable to the masses, focusing on creating an operating system and software that worked with third-party computers instead of selling the hardware themselves. As a result, about 95 per cent of the computers around the world are PCs.

Gates also entered the computing fray at a time when a computer was both its hardware and software, similar to the Apple approach. Two different systems could not run the same software, and could barely talk to each other.

By aggressively knocking off its competitors, Microsoft came close to achieving a universal standard for writing code and developing software, a tactic that made computing what it is today. Having a single operating system made computing accessible and affordable for the masses.

It hasn’t always been a smooth road for Microsoft or Gates, but without Gates the road might never have existed in the first place. Whether we knew it or not, we were all along for the ride.