All-knowing data-miners slip on banana peel

For the longest time God has been the undisputed boss on Mt. Olympus. All-knowing, all-powerful, ubiquitous. But now along comes a bunch of upstarts, the Trinity of Google, Apple and Facebook, seeking to unseat the "maker of all that is, seen and unseen." The latest warning sign that God should be looking in his rear-view mirror was an article over the weekend in the LA Times. It told us - as if we had to be reminded again - that Google, Apple and Facebook have been collecting huge amounts of data on us. This god-like trio knows where we are, always; who our friends are; and, perhaps most importantly, what our buying habits are. In short, we are earthly playthings in the hands of Google et alia whose data-knowledge of us is used to place clever ads in our cyber-universe, incessantly prodding us to buy politicians, causes, gadgets, whatever.

After reading the Times article, I felt like Harry Caul, the Gene Hackman character in the 1974 psychological thriller The Conversation, who ends the movie in a losing fight against insidious forces taking control of his life. Hackman tears apart his house (while mournfully playing a saxophone) to find and destroy the electronic eavesdropping devices that are the tools of his persecutors. The equivalent now would be for me to go-off-the-grid. Renounce all dealings with the internet. Smash my computer, my cellphone. Deny Google, Apple and Facebook a portal to my brain, my pocketbook. But forget it.Too radical.

Still, I did want to test the Times' thesis that I was being inundated with subtle, manipulative ads facilitated by Google, Apple and Facebook and that these ads were compromising my very sovereignty - over myself.

It was hard to believe. I have no memory for ads. How could I be manipulated if I'm so out of it? But wait, I thought, as I reviewed my Facebook page with new suspicion and curiosity. Yes, there are ads on my page! Wow! I looked at them with child-like wonder - seeing them for the first time. Facebook- perhaps even Mark Zuckerberg himself - wants me to install solar panels on my roof. To go on a cruise. To own a BMW. Surely one of these Facebook ads had slyly imprinted its message on my brain. But no, I had no solar panels. No cruise. No BMW. Was it possible I had never clicked on one of these ads - just once? Was I some unconscious, pagan brute?

Then, I remembered something. Yes. I had clicked on a Facebook ad - once. It featured a little photo of a woman; the caption said "I am a Mormon." It also said she was a TV reporter. This woman appeared day-after-day on my FB. Finally, one day I rewarded her persistence by clicking on her ad - perhaps hoping to find out about a time-share condo deal in Provo, Utah. Whatever. I have no recollection after that - other than a vague indifference to whatever this Mormon TV reporter was up to. What I do recall is that she was part of a nationwide "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign (that is still rolling out in some venues) designed to convince us that Mormons are not wierdos. They're just like us. That is to say, they're wierdos too.

Anyway, this morning, as I was writing this blog, it dawned on me that pitching a Mormon TV reporter at me, on my FB-page, was an excellent example of how the data-miners at FB had probably teamed up with the Church of the Latter Day Saints (i.e. the Mormon church) to craft an advertising pitch custom-made just for me. After all, until a few weeks ago, I too was a TV reporter. Hmm. This data-mining thing was beginning to look real. But is it sophisticated?

I dug deeper. On the Mormon church website are hundreds, possibly thousands, of Mormons offering to befriend us non-Mormons, to be our soul-mates - and explain their religion. This pool of willing Mormons is search-able; plug in a state, a religion, a keyword (like insurance salesman, teacher or golfer) and you can find your perfectly-matched Mormon. I typed in the keyword "reporter" to see if there colleagues of mine in Mormon-land who wanted to have a heart-to-heart.

Then I had a revelation about the Big Fear - that we are the targets of diabolically crafty data-mining, mind-controllers. It is way over-blown. If, in fact, the data-miners were so smart, they should've picked Rex, another TV reporter- Mormon, to be my Facebook soul-mate. Not that immemorable other woman they kept flashing at me. I found Rex while scrolling through the dozen or so Mormons listed as TV reporter-types on the church's website. Here's what she had to say:

"Hi, I'm Rex. I work in TV News. I'm a Mormon. Born in South Bend, IN. Moved all around the country. I've worked in TV as a news producer, reporter. Producing now."

Okay. Not much there to tickle my fancy. But looking at Rex's photo I knew Facebook and Google and Apple and all their data-sharing companions, with all their computers, their interlocking digital observation posts, their logarithmic patterns, had missed a key clue to my persona!

It should have been child's play for these smartie-pants to put Rex and me together. We have a shared TV reporter background (that's easy), and then there's reams of data from my Ralph's and Whole Foods grocery receipts. With a little effort, the data-miners should have dug one big clue out of those receipts - bananas! I buy bananas every time I go to the grocery store. I even buy them at a 7-11. And here's a photo of Rex on the Mormon website. She's in her kitchen, smiling, and holding out - you guessed it - a big bunch of bananas, a friendship offering, to me. Elementary my dear Watson.

Obviously I could have easily sat down with Rex for hours, listening to her tell me about Mormonism, bonding with her over our common TV business experiences - and eating one banana after another. Why didn't Google, Apple and Facebook figure this out? Crafty and smart? I don't think so. They missed an opportunity for a hook-up. Now it's too late. I've moved on.

So God - you can rest a little easier knowing your rivals have a long way to go to match your unblinking, all-seeing brain.

Now I'm wondering how many days, hours, minutes, seconds, it'll be before some sly banana pitch is inserted into an ad on my FB-page or comes streaming across the top of my gmail page? My stop-watch is on. I'm waiting....


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