The deeper issue

Journalism’s biggest problem (as I’ve said before) is what it’s best at: telling stories. That’s what Thomas B. Edsall (of Columbia and The New York Times) does in Trump’s Digital Advantage Is Freaking Out Democratic Strategists, published in today’s New York Times. He tells a story.

It’s an interesting one, about the fight between Republican and Democratic campaigns, and Repubicans’ superior use of modern methods for persuading voters:

Experts in the explosively growing field of political digital technologies have developed an innovative terminology to describe what they do — a lexicon that is virtually incomprehensible to ordinary voters. This language provides an inkling of the extraordinarily arcane universe politics has entered:

geofencingmass personalizationdark patternsidentity resolution technologiesdynamic prospectinggeotargeting strategieslocation analyticsgeo-behavioural segmentpolitical data cloudautomatic content recognitiondynamic creative optimization.

Geofencing and other emerging digital technologies derive from microtargeting marketing initiatives that use consumer and other demographic data to identify the interests of specific voters or very small groups of like-minded individuals to influence their thoughts or actions.

In fact the “arcane universe” he’s talking about is just the direct marketing playbook, which was born offline as the junk mail business. In that business, tracking individuals and bothering them personally is a fine and fully rationalized thing. And let’s face it: political campaigning has always wanted to get personal. It’s why we have mass mailings, mass callings, mass textings and the rest of it—all to personal addresses, numbers and faces.

Coincidence: I just got this:

There is nothing new here other than (at the moment) the Trump team doing it better than any Democrat. (Except maybe Bernie.) Obama’s team was better at it in ’08 and ’12. Trump’s was better at it in ’16 and is better again in ’20.*

However, debating which candidates do the best marketing misdirects our attention away from the destruction of personal privacy by constant tracking of our asses online—including tracking of asses by politicians. This, I submit, is a bigger and badder issue than which politicians do the best direct marketing. It may even be bigger than who gets elected to what in November.

As issues go, personal privacy is soul-deep. Who gets elected, and how, are not.

As I put it here,

Surveillance of people is now the norm for nearly every website and app that harvests personal data for use by machines. Privacy, as we’ve understood it in the physical world since the invention of the loincloth and the door latch, doesn’t yet exist. Instead, all we have are the “privacy policies” of corporate entities participating in the data extraction marketplace, plus terms and conditions they compel us to sign, either of which they can change on a whim. Most of the time our only choice is to deny ourselves the convenience of these companies’ services or live our lives offline.

Worse is that these are proffered on the Taylorist model, meaning mass-produced.

There is a natural temptation to want to fix this with policy. This is a mistake for two reasons:

  1. Policy-makers are themselves part of the problem. Hell, most of their election campaigns are built on direct marketing. And law enforcement (which carries out certain forms of policy) has always regarded personal privacy as a problem to overcome rather than a solution to anything. Example.
  2. Policy-makers often screw things up. Exhibit A: the EU’s GDPR, which has done more to clutter the Web with insincere and misleading cookie notices than it has to advance personal privacy tech online. (I’ve written about this a lot. Here’s one sample.)

We need tech of our own. Terms and policies of our own. In the physical world, we have privacy tech in the forms of clothing, shelter, doors, locks and window shades. We have policies in the form of manners, courtesies, and respect for privacy signals we send to each other. We lack all of that online. Until we invent it, the most we’ll do to achieve real privacy online is talk about it, and inveigh for politicians to solve it for us. Which they won’t.

If you’re interested in solving personal privacy at the personal level, take a look at Customer Commons. If you want to join our efforts there, talk to me.

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*The Trump campaign also has the enormous benefit of an already-chosen Republican ticket. The Democrats have a mess of candidates and a split in the party between young and old, socialists and moderates, and no candidate as interesting as is Trump.

At this point, it’s no contest. Trump is the biggest character in the biggest story of our time. (I explain this in Where Journalism Fails.) And he’s on a glide path to winning in November, just as I said he was in 2016.

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