Last night I was reading my daughter’s bedtime story from that classic of American children’s literature, The Phantom Tollbooth, when I came across a passage that set out brilliantly the problems that can arise as a result of the gathering and use of private data. Bear in mind that The Phantom Tollbooth was first published in 1961: Norton Juster didn’t have the benefit of seeing how what can loosely now be described as ‘big data’ operates – but he did have an understanding of how our information can be used against us, even when we have ‘nothing to hide’.
To set the scene: Milo the boy, Tock the Watchdog and the huge insect the Humbug are on the final stages of their mission to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Castle in the Air. They reach the bottom of the final staircase, pursued by demons, where they don’t notice a little round man sleeping peacefully on a very large ledger. The next part I’m just going to repeat:
“NAMES?” the little man called out briskly, just as the startled bug reached for the first step. He sat up quickly, pulled the book out from under him, put on a green eyeshade, and waited with his pen poised in the air.
“Well, I…” stammered the bug.
“NAMES?” he cried again, and as he did, he opened the book to page 512 and began to write furiously. The quill made horrible scratching noises, and the point, which was continuously catching on the paper, flicked tiny inkblots all over him. As they called out their names, he noted them carefully in alphabetical order.
“Splendid, splendid, splendid,” he muttered to himself. “I haven’t had an M for ages.”
“What do you want our names for?” asked Milo, looking anxiously over his shoulder. “We’re in a bit of a hurry.”
“Oh, this won’t take a minute,” the man assured them. “I’m just the official Senses Taker, and I must have some information before I can take your senses. Now, if you’ll just tell me when you were born, where you were born, why you were born, how old you are now, how old you were then, how old you’ll be in a little while, your mother’s name, your father’s name, your aunt’s name, your uncle’s name, your cousin’s name, where you live, how long you’ve lived there, the schools you’ve attended, the schools you haven’t attended, your hobbies, your telephone number, your shoe size, shirt size, collar size, hat size, and the names and addresses of six people who can verify all this information, we’ll get started.”
These days, of course, there wouldn’t need to be a ‘senses taker’ to get most of that information – 800 million or so of us have already ‘volunteered’ much of it to Facebook, while much of the rest of it (the sensible bits anyway) can be gathered reasonably directly from other sources. Anyway, the Senses Taker proceeds to gather all this and more, before Milo quite reasonably suggests that they need to get a move on, and can they just proceed. At that point, the Senses Taker demands to know their destination.
“The Castle in the Air,” said Milo impatiently.
“Why bother?” said the Senses Taker, pointing to the distance. “I’m sure you’d rather see what I have to show you.”
As he spoke, they all looked up, but only Milo could see the gay and exciting circus there on the horizon. There were tents and side shows and rides and even wild animals – everything a little boy could spend hours watching.
“And wouldn’t you enjoy a more pleasant aroma?” he said, turning to Tock.
Almost immediately the dog smelt a wonderful smell that no-one but he could smell. It was made up of all the marvellous things that had ever delighted his curious nose.
“And here’s something I know you’ll enjoy hearing,” he assured the Humbug.
The bug listened with rapt attention to something he alone could hear – the shouts and applause of an enormous crowd, all cheering for him.
They each stood as if in a trance, looking, smelling, and listening to the very special things that the Senses Taker had provided for them, forgetting completely about where they were going and who, with evil intent, was coming up behind them.
The Senses Taker sat back with a satisfied smile on his puffy little face as the demons came closer and closer, until less than a minute separated them from their helpless victims.
But Milo was too engrossed in the circus to notice, and Tock had closed his eyes, the better to smell, and the bug bowing and waving, stood with a look of sheer bliss on his face, interested only in the wild ovation.
Of course Milo, Tock and the Humbug do eventually escape, and the Senses Taker’s true nature is revealed: he is a demon himself:
“I warned you; I warned you I was the Senses Taker,” sneered the Senses Taker. “I help people find what they’re not looking for, hear what they’re not listening for, run after what isn’t there. And, furthermore,” he cackled, hopping around gleefully on his stubby legs, “I’ll steal your sense of purpose, take your sense of duty, destroy your sense of proportion…”
It’s as good a description of the dangers of the personalisation of the internet – which I’ve written about before, and is inherent in the Symbiotic Web model that underlies a lot of my work – as you might find. The Senses Taker’s processes – gather all the data it can, use it to conceptualise how each individual might be seduced into doing something to the benefit of the Senses Taker (rather than to the benefit of the individual) is pretty much exactly what behavioural advertising does, what Facebook does, what many other kinds of privacy-invasive profile-based systems do. And the Sense Taker is a demon…….
P.S. If you haven’t read the Phantom Tollbooth, you should! It’s a brilliant book, lots of fun and at the same time actually quite deep!