When we talk about ads being creepy, it goes beyond a sense of being watched. It’s an encounter with the uncanny. I’ve been developing this idea for a while and I got to write it up for The Atlantic.
Right now we don’t have many tools for understanding the causal relationship between our data and how third parties use it. When we try to figure out why creepy ads follow us around the Internet, or why certain friends show up in our newsfeeds more than others, it’s difficult to discern coarse algorithms from hyper-targeted machine learning that may be generating the information we see. We don’t often get to ask our machines, “What makes you think that about me?”…
Personalization purports to be uniquely meaningful, yet it alienates us in its mass application. Data tracking and personalized advertising is often described as “creepy.” Personalized ads and experiences are supposed to reflect individuals, so when these systems miss their mark, they can interfere with a person’s sense of self. It’s hard to tell whether the algorithm doesn’t know us at all, or if it actually knows us better than we know ourselves. And it’s disconcerting to think that there might be a glimmer of truth in what otherwise seems unfamiliar. This goes beyond creepy, and even beyond the sense of being watched.
We’ve wandered into the uncanny valley.