By John Rapley
Whenever you open your web browser and go to, say, a news site, you will see advertisements for various products and services. What you may not know is that those ads have been personally tailored to you. Unlike a physical newspaper, whose layout and advertising content is identical for everyone, a website can sell advertising based on each viewer's personal preferences.
The way it does this is to plant a 'cookie' on your device when you go to the site. Although not quite a spy, the cookie gathers data on your browsing habits, which it then retrieves the next time you open your browser. Over time, if you haven't disabled cookies, the service provider can build up a profile of the viewer and use that specific knowledge to sell advertising space to clients.
Privacy advocates have always raised concerns about the Little Brothers taking the place of Big Brother. But the justification for cookies is that they enable Internet companies to give their users what they want - a better experience which alters content to meet their specific needs. Besides, even though few people know they are being tracked, strictly speaking, they have the option to back out.
Once tracking was possible, it was just a small step to the next logical stage: combining it with the GPS technologies of mobile devices. The ubiquitous mapping softwares which we all love could be adapted to track our movements. Suppose you were in a strange city looking for a familiar dish, you could type that into your search engine, and the mapping software would guide you to the nearest such restaurant. Over time, it could build up a profile of the places you liked to visit, and market for its clients accordingly.
This might seem like a highly efficient way to live. Rather than wandering streets you don't know and asking strangers for directions, you could get what you want quickly and with a minimum of effort. The next frontier might see advertisers linking such software with face-recognition technology.
In theory, a mobile device could, say, troll your Facebook page and develop a visual image of you to connect to your browsing profile. Suppose you are out shopping and have mobile tracking switched on. You enter a store whose security cameras identify you and relay that information to a server, whose algorithm instantly sends back a list of your buying preferences. Shop attendants could then steer you to the section of the store which best meets your likely interests.
It may not come to that. Disturbed by the implications of online tracking, governments in Europe and the United States have recently begun placing limitations on what they can track. For their part, the champions of the new mapping software maintain that since users can opt out, there need be no privacy concern. The legal battle has only just started.
CHANGING THE WORLD
What it reveals is the way that mapping technology is changing the world in which we live. Previously, the most detailed maps were produced by states, which wanted to plot the lay of the land in order to control it. Armies wanted to know the quickest and easiest routes to get their soldiers into battle, and tax collectors wanted to know who the property holders in a given area were.
Today, that kind of knowledge is shifting into private hands. That may or may not be a good thing, but it does seem to further erode the authority of states we once took for granted. It is no wonder they are fighting back.
But there is a more mundane way that such developments are changing the experience of human life. Something like 50 per cent of scientific discovery involves an element of chance or accident. Similarly in life, most of us can point to favourite places, friends or even jobs which we stumbled on to. Not very many of us actually know what we'll find along the way when we start a journey.
Mapping software may make the world more efficient. Or it may narrow us to the paths we know, and actually slow our progress - without our ever knowing it.
John Rapley, a political economist at the University of Cambridge, is currently on a visiting professorship at Queen's University in Canada. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.