Saturday, June 29, 2013

They're Watching You

It was a lazy Saturday afternoon, and we were contemplating what to do for the evening. We had no real plans, so discussion turned to a movie. We settled on one, and I moseyed over to the computer to find out where it was playing. A quick search showed it was not far away, and in fact near a little Italian place we liked that had outdoor seating. I checked their dinner specials, looked at the show times and we were good to go.

So far nothing in this sequence of events is unusual or remarkable; in fact, it defines pedestrian. But that little bit of typing and several clicks had drawn me in deep. I'll leave it to you to decide if the web in which I was caught was amazing, intrusive, terrifying, or a little bit of each. But by going online and tipping my hand as to what I was thinking, I had fallen into their clutches. Not the NSA, but Big Data.

That's the term used to describe the massive amount of information that is generated not only by our web searches, but also from our GPS devices, cell phone signals and purchase transactions, to name just a few sources. It's basically everything that is out there today about everyone and everything, by some counts a total of 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every single day.

But if the volume and variety of information is staggering, it's a third "v" that's really amazing: velocity. Instead of just swirling around independently, it's being filtered and matched and analyzed and – here's the scary part – acted upon almost in real time. You've seen this at its most basic if you've ever searched for something online. Type a few letters, and a list of possible choices comes up. Used to be those were culled from a list of words that started the same way, with no regard for context: type "new" and you got "new age," "New Albany" and "New Amsterdam." But sitting where I am right now, if I type those same three letters into a Google search bar, I get "New York Times" "News 12" or "New York Lottery." Hardly an alphabetical choice, but rather driven by where I am, what I've done in the past and what others near me are doing. You see this with book choices from Amazon, plane tickets on Expedia, even stuff for sale at Target.

So what does any of this have to with my wife and I on a Saturday night? Well, when we finally got our act together and started to head out the door, I grabbed my keys and phone. I powered it up to make sure it was working, and unlocked it to see if there were any last minute messages. And up popped a bunch of "cards" from a program called Google Now, the very embodiment of Big Data.

Mind you, I had not touched my phone all day. But there on the screen was a card showing the theater we were going to along with the show times coming up. There was a link to a review of the movie. There was a map showing me the best route to get to the theater, along with a report of traffic along the way and estimated drive time. There was even a card with a link to the restaurant we liked, along with a notice of their "Lasagna Night" promotion.

Other than the fact that I prefer pasta with sausage and broccoli rabe in garlic and oil, it had me down pat. And I had done nothing to get that information. Well, not exactly nothing; I had told "it" what I was thinking by my searching. To be sure, had I looked up the show times in the newspaper, my phone would have only shown me that it had downloaded an update to Angry Birds. But with just a few clicks on my keyboard, I started computers from Phoenix to India analyzing me, predicting my behavior and offering up actions to be taken.

Big Friend or Big Brother? It's both of those and more. But make no mistake: it's here. If you don't like it, then don't go online, throw away you smartphone and disconnect your cable. Other than that, they've got you. As for me, I'm actually starting to develop a craving for lasagna.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is amazed by what pops up on his phone these days. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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