Opinion & Analysis
OPINION: Thirty-six years ago next week, one of punk rock's milestone events happened: two newly formed groups – The Clash and The Damned – had their public debuts, opening for the Sex Pistols at the Black Swan in Sheffield, England, in July 1976.
Both the bands and the individuals – including the infamous Johnny Rotten and the irreproachable Joe Strummer – would go on to form and influence dozens of rock bands in the next 30 years; from Guns N' Roses to U2, Blondie, Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen.
The Sex Pistols would last only another 18 months before imploding in San Francisco in January 1978, with Rotten at loggerheads with manager Malcolm McLaren, while guitarist Sid Vicious was in a self-destructive spiral that would end in suicide later that year. My mate, Craig, is a punk rock fanatic and can quote chapter and verse on this stuff.
I caught up with Craig last week for a couple of beers and a yarn. Knowing my interest in cyber anarchy, Craig told me an interesting story. Sadly, a close friend of his recently separated from her husband of 15 years.
Unsurprisingly, she didn't feel emotionally or physically capable of notifying her circle of friends of the news in person, so she chose a less challenging mechanism.
She sent out an update email to friends via her Gmail account and also direct messaged a few mates on Facebook, telling them the unhappy news.
Soon after she noticed a radical change in the advertisements she was being fed via both these channels. At the top of her Gmail she started to notice she was being recommended divorce lawyers.
To be clear, she hadn't been Googling divorce lawyers, they just started appearing at the top of her Gmail every day along with suggestions that it could be a good idea to make contact with one.
On Facebook it was less subtle. Every time she logged in to the social network she would have dating websites flashed up at her.
Not necessarily very subtle dating websites either, replete with promises about how many guys there were out there wanting to connect, ideally tonight.
While she was aware Google and Facebook made their money from delivering targeted ads, she'd never thought about just how targeted those ads were, or how personally they did the targeting.
Suddenly it became obvious that someone (or more likely something) was monitoring the content of all her personal messages and then using that content analysis to decide who would pay the most to engage her.
She then did the right thing and checked out their policies.
Sure enough, the policies gave notice that the net giants might carry out content extraction in order to be able to serve up supposedly useful product and service suggestions. It's funny how different you feel when you find out how intrusive that can be.
Social media researcher Dana Boyd has written about how traditionally people's lives were private by default and public by action; but in the cyber age it's become weirdly reversed. Today, many of our lives are public by default and private by action.
While it's questionable whether people ever read the privacy policies and terms they sign up to when using a service like Facebook, for the most part they do actually tell you what they are going to do with your data (and in many cases this includes selling it). Of more concern is the growing number of online behavioural tracking companies who make a business out of pulling together all the data you leave behind as you negotiate the internet.
These businesses hoover up all the information you leave behind you as you live your digital life.
There is no opting in or out.
Mozilla Corporation chief executive Gary Kovacs has estimated that for every website you visit there are five behavioural tracking web services following you and recording what you do. Kovacs found that during the period of one typical day he ended up identifying 150 behavioural tracking websites that had sucked in data from him, without his permission.
Influenced by this, his company, Mozilla, recently launched a free add-on to its Firefox web browser called "Collusion" which shows all the behavioural tracking sites following you through the digital woods.
I installed it and have been deeply unsettled by the results, seeing the spider-web of interaction between companies and other trackers.
You might want to do the same.
The Sex Pistols played their last gig on January 14, 1978, at the Winter Ballroom in San Francisco. Their last song was Iggy Pop's No Fun.
After the song ended, Johnny Rotten shouted: "Aha, ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" and walked off.
In a digital world where it's becoming increasingly clear that we are not customers of the global web giants, but rather a product generating data for the giants to sell, we might well ask the same question.
- Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is a professional director, author and e-commerce manager. His Twitter handle is @modsta and he's gutted he never got to see Joe Strummer play live.
- © Fairfax NZ News