If you use Google's Gmail, you probably felt a moment of unease upon learning that, in exchange for getting this free and extremely well-designed service (note to other e-mail providers: organizing messages into threads is the greatest thing ever), you'd have to give up a bit of your privacy. Namely, Gmail scans your messages, picks out keywords, and then puts up ads in your e-mail it believes are relevant to those keywords. For instance, if someone mentions China in a message to you, while you're reading it, there will be ads on the right side of your screen for travel companies offering tours to China. Most people very quickly stop noticing the ads, but if you stop to think about it, it's kind of creepy -- particularly since most of us treat e-mail the way we would a phone call, saying all kinds of personal things on the implicit assumption that no one's really listening.
But now I've found that Google is stalking me. I'm considering buying a new phone, and in that process I searched for reviews of Google's own phone, the Nexus One. Since that fateful day a few weeks ago, literally three out of every four Web sites I visit -- including this one! -- feature ads for the Nexus One when I go to them. I've now viewed those ads hundreds, maybe thousands of times. Advertising has gone from broadcasting to narrowcasting to microcasting. And it's only going to get worse.
Between television and the Web and billboards and ads plastered on the side of every moving or stationary object our eyes can take in, we're exposed to thousands of ads every day (the reported number is 3,000, but I can't seem to find anything definitive). The popular view of the logical end to this progression is expressed in Logorama, which recently won an Academy Award for best animated short film. It portrays a future in which everything has become a different corporate logo. Once we all get our contact lens implants allowing for ceaseless augmented reality, the future might turn into something like the profoundly disturbing video below. Watching it will make you want to run to the woods so you can be out of advertising's reach for an hour.
On the other hand, it might be that instead of seeing thousands of ads for all kinds of products, we'll be seeing only one ad at a time, over and over, as companies like Google will be able to purchase your entire spectrum of visual attention for a minute, an hour, or a week. Given how they won't let me escape their phone, that's starting to look more likely. I can't decide which is worse.
-- Paul Waldman