Don Marti

Sun 29 Jun 2014 08:47:43 AM PDT

The Internet is Temptation Island.

I'm still trying to unpack and interpret some of the "privacy is dead" claims.

Remember the TV show "Temptation Island"? It's all about inducing people to violate a norm.

On the Internet, you're always on the island. Behavioral marketing people, gamifiers, and growth hackers are inducing you to violate your civility, thrift, diligence, and privacy norms everywhere, all the time.

"Privacy is dead," in many cases, is short for, "Marketing can circumvent the norms-enforcing, long-term-thinking side of the user's brain, to reach the mindless-clicking, short-term-gratification-seeking side of the user's brain."

Betsy Haibel writes, in The Fantasy and Abuse of the Manipulable User,

“Banner blindness” - the phenomenon in which users become subtly accustomed to the visual noise of web ads, and begin to tune them out - is a semiconscious filtering mechanism which reduces but does not eliminate the cognitive load of sorting signal from noise. Deceptive linking practices are intended to combat banner-blindness and increase exposures to advertising material. In doing so, they sharply increase the cognitive effort required to navigate and extract information from websites.

If it's just one brain versus the collective manipulation power of the entire Internet industry, we're doomed. But our species has been fighting off temptations for a long time. We have those exhausting mental filters, sure, and if we work on it we can build temptation-resisting habits. But in the long run we build other tools.

In effect, we learn how to stay off the island in the first place. On the Internet, the biggest example of how to help our brains is email spam filters, but web ad blockers are catching up. The interesting trend is that the old-school general blockers are being joined by Disconnect and Privacy Badger—tools that specifically address targeting, not just ads in general. If we stay off "social" sites as much as possible, the available protection from manipulation that follows us across sites is looking pretty good.

The biggest problem with targeted ads, of course, is that they don't pay their way in exchange of information. An ad that's targeted to the user is no better than a cold call at carrying information to me, so it's not in my interest to spend time on it. But for targeted advertising, it's dammed if you do, dammed if you don't. If it fails, it's a waste of time. If it works, it's worse, a violation of the Internet/brain barrier. Haibel again:

“Growth hacking” - traditional marketing’s aggressive, automated, and masculinely-coded baby brother - will continue to expand as a field and will continue to be cavalier-at-best with user boundaries.

But boundary-testing is not news. The boundary between self and not-self has been under attack for thousands of years. Sometimes we lose, but we survive because we can win often enough. If the brain can beat habit-forming substances and cults of personality, it can beat surveillance marketing, too.

The four lines of defense as I see them are:

Listed from fastest-acting, most responsive, to slowest-acting, least responsive. When we get weary of using one, we fall back on the next one.

Oh, and how did that TV show come out? Three couples split up, one couple stuck together.. Better get your Privacy Badger on, people.