When I first discovered the Internet, I really didn't think about it much. I just used it the way pretty much everyone else used it, as a new toy. Or a new kind of TV. And once I'd tired of looking at the porn, and working my way through the giant silicone boobies phase, and swimsuit issue perfect Hollywood perky ripe artificially sculpted bodies phase, and the creepy fringe weirdo gross-out websites like rotten.com and somethingawful phase, eventually I'd use the web for something useful or even edifying. I stumbled across Project Gutenberg, and, uh, I don't know, other high-brow stuff.
And that didn't last very long.
Because eventually, like most everyone, I found out about the message boards, or bulletin boards, or web forums. And of course, that was the place to be, because everyone wanted to know what I thought about things, right?
There were many variations on a theme, but basically you had a collection of people loosely attracted around an activity or a person, like a hobby or a fan base. And like pretty much everyone else, I kind of preferred to maintain my anonymity. We all, to one extent or another, reverted to early adolescent behavior, assumed alternate identities, and donned these dorky superhero/supervillian/alterego costumes.
I pretty much stuck with the handle "Ned", for reasons of minimal typing really.
But others... well, some of the pseudonyms were downright embarrassing-- and revealing. Any handle with an "X" in it, such as Comrade X, or Cowboy X, or Mister X, suggested to me an immature or malformed personality. And they usually were.
It really was quite sad. Some, of course, were excused. Specifically, those of us who were actually fifteen-year-old boys. The rest of us supposed adults - including me - were pretty much just pathetic behavioral examples of Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons: petty, pedantic, ponderous, pseudo-intellectual, fact-spewing, pissing-match-contestants with University of Google degrees, and not offering much in the way of intelligent, or interesting, conversation.
Anonymity does not bring out the best behavior in people. Generally, BBS systems quickly devolved into Lowest Common Denominator territory. There was, in some areas, civilized discourse, but the more general situations were flamewars, IP banning, and the continual appearance of trolls. And after some time, you really grow to hate people you know nothing about. At least I did. So, I'd eventually do the sensible thing, vote with my feet, and stop posting to the bulletin board systems.
Instead, now I post here, where I have the last word. Mature, huh?
But anyway, the one thing it took me forever to figure out was: just how anonymous were you really?
I mean, here you are with browser software running on your personal computer. And not only does the browser software allow other programs to run on your computer, programs you don't even know are there, but the browser software is gaining all this knowledge about you. All this time, people worried about malware, spyware, and it has been running on all of our machines from Day One.
It knows not only where you are, but what you do, how often you do it, when you do it, and with the help of increasingly smarter software, what your preferences are, what your shameful secrets are, what your heart's desire is. And this juicy information, this advertising executive's wet dream is, available to marketers.
What an idiot I am.
What an incredibly precise information gathering tool. It makes all mass-marketing attempts look like the clumsiest simian fumbling about at stone axes and hand clubs.
What an amazingly clever piece of subversion. The economic value of the knowledge gained is nothing short of vast. Vast, in fact, is a poor descriptive term. Massive, colossal, gigantic, mammoth, don't even come close.
The world has shifted on its axis, and someone built the new axis. That's how big this is.
And I never had a clue.