Facebook has announced the closure of its controversial data-collecting Onavo app, which allowed it to monitor teenagers’ phone activity for months, ultimately giving it the information to make a strategic purchase of Whatsapp. GDPR legislation now requires companies to gain a user’s explicit consent before taking any of their details. And as anyone who saw that Channel 4 Brexit programme will know, Benedict Cumberbatch used Cambridge Analytica’s sneakily-acquired data to manipulate voters.
I can’t help but feel that the act of illegally harvesting information from the public by secretive multi-billion pound corporations has been given a bit of a bad rap. We all bend the rules a bit when we want some information, don’t we? We glance at a friend’s part of the screen when playing a multi-player game. We look up the menu of a restaurant in advance and then pretend we’re seeing it for the first time when we order. We look up the spoilers for Game of Thrones because we don’t watch it but Jackie does and by god Jackie will you be sorry for telling me in front of at least three other people that I only have one outfit and should invest in a new jumper.
But even if you’re going to hook your spurs into the stirrups of your high high horse and claim that it’s not the same, I think there is a moral case in favour of cookies.
You see, cookies made me a better person.
What we choose to buy says a lot about us, and this is reflected in the tailored ads that we see. Been watching cookery videos on how to eat healthily? Oh nice, I’m being told to buy a healthy cookbook – I must be a healthy guy! Bought a tie for dad’s birthday? Facebook is recommending me tailored suits – it must think I’m quite the debonair customer!
Your subconscious is spelled out in front of you in the form of products from the 18th page on Amazon, and when these products are the sorts of things a successful young person would get, you must be a successful young person! And if they aren’t? If sponsored ads for multi-packs of Monster Munch, bottles of Jägermeister and that Jordan Peterson book are coming up, then it’s a sign that you need to change your ways, and pronto!
I will confess the one instance I regret this cookie philosophy: in the winter of ’16 I was running a show at university that was set in a prison, and which required handcuffs as props. I bought the cheapest ones from Amazon, which were in fact designed for role-play in the bedroom. That single purchase has led to lubricants, whips, sex manuals and fetish Minion™ costumes appearing on my laptop. Family, friends and my girlfriend have seen these ads appear on my laptop screen, and I know they have seen them, much as they pretend not to. Luckily my boss hasn’t seen them, as I am unemployed.
But this is to nitpick – overall the cookie is a force for good. Aristotle said (and I think this is in translation, although all the Greek people I know speak very good English, so it’s possible that this is the original) “Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts”. Although he was talking more about doing morally just deeds in society, I can say with beyond total conviction that if he were alive today he would say the same about cookies.
So what have cookies made me become?
More self-aware. More virtuous. More jumpers (I know Jackie will be at the reunion next Friday and I will not give her any ammunition this time). But also more comfortable, knowing that out in the maze of algorithms, the information about me is information that suggests I buy good stuff.
And so like the Romans embracing volcanoes as a personified god because they didn’t get the science of them, I embrace the internet as mine. It has all my information which will presumably be bought, stolen and used against me in the not-so-distant future, but because I don’t really understand how it works, I will love it totally. Keep making me a better person, ads. But no more Minion costumes please.
Images by: Awesomenauts Screenshot © 2012 Ronimo Games, see http://www.awesomenauts.com., CC BY-SA 3.0.
JD Lasica from Pleasanton, CA, US – Mark Zuckerberg, CC BY 2.0.