Good service or privacy invasion…

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You wouldn’t know it now, but there was a time when I was a pretty good dresser. Fashionable, even.

I will admit that this was through no fault (or effort) of my own. But when I was a teenager, I bought my clothing at a single store, where there was a clerk who essentially picked out all of my clothing. I would go in a couple of times a year, and he would tell me what to buy, and what went with what, and how I could combine what I was buying with what I already owned. He didn’t quite stitch the garanimals on the clothing for me, but it was close. He knew everything that I owned, and all I had to do was follow his instructions.

When I went off to college, I was on my own and things degraded quickly. But for a while there I had great service, and was willing to pay a price and know that there was someone who knew more about what was in my closet than I did. He also cared more than I did. But I liked the result.

I can now foresee a time when this sort of service could be offered again, pretty much to everyone. It could be done via the web, using an AI that was able to filter my preferences (taken from what I had bought in the past) and add some sense of fashion taste, and offer me the right clothing to buy. It would know more about what was in my closet than I did, and could customize itself to my taste and preferences.

But we tend to worry about all of the data that on-line corporations like Amazon and Google know about us, given all of the data that they gather. We worry about the micro-targeting of ads (which can also be seen as only showing us ads about things in which we are interested) and the honing of our news feeds that put us in a bubble. Because of this, there is talk of regulating the data that these companies gather about us, limiting their ability to know what we have done and predict what we will do.

While I share a lot of these concerns, I also wonder if we are letting the unfamiliarity and “creepiness” of the situations dictate an emotional response that may not be justified. When I hear people talking about how much, say, Google knows about me, I wonder who it is that actually knows. Corporations don’t know things, they are abstract entities. The computers at Google don’t know things, either; they process data and perform algorithms, but they no more know anything than submarines swim. Is there any person at Google who knows all of this information about me (I have friends at Google who know a lot about me, but that isn’t from tracking the data I enter on-line). There might be someone at the NSA that knows about me (although I doubt I’m that interesting), but I don’t think there is anyone at Google.

One big difference between the technologies that know about me and the clothing store clerk of my youth is that I trusted the clerk. He was another human, and I talked with him and interacted in a way that led me to respect his opinions (and do what I was told). There is no such trust relationship with the technologies with which I interact. But that could change, if the sophistication of the algorithms improves. Rather than showing me things I have just purchased to see if I want to purchase them again, maybe the algorithms will start showing me things related to those purchases. The more they could be like the trusted clerk, the less I would be creeped out.

I don’t think they will ever get to the point that I will be a fashionable dresser again. But it might mitigate some of my worries about privacy. Maybe…

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