Big Data is watching you!

I grew up in a different era than my students, in a time when the adventures described by wanderers like Hemingway or Kerouac still seemed plausible; like, okay, the world has changed quite a bit since then, and there are more channels on television, but leaving the world of what you know and getting lost in the elsewhere is still possible.

I started hitch-hiking in junior high and continued right through college. It was always an expedient, a way to get from here to there for free, but after I read On The Road, I realized I might somehow also be committing some small act of literature. I began to pay a different kind of attention as the roadsides glided by and I found myself in more interesting conversations with the people who picked me up. I thumbed north and south and all around – out to Chicago to visit a blues club, just to do it, over to New York City, also just because, up to Hartford to visit my sister and then, boom, 400 miles across the New York State Thruway to Buffalo to visit my girlfriend, who is now my wife (but still, happily, my girlfriend, come to think of it). And I wrote about all of it. I don’t have a single selfie, or any other sort of visual evidence of my journeys, save a durable canvas bag given to me by a sister; I don’t use it anymore, but I still have it. I wouldn’t hitch-hike now and wouldn’t advise anyone else to; it’s a different world, crazier. But I’m glad I caught the last few rays of a golden age of superhighway vagrancy.

I was a college kid with a couple of white poster-board destination signs, flipping them at crossroads, like Bob Dylan in that video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” One of the real joys of hitch-hiking was getting dropped off at some lonely highway junction and thinking, “Man, here I am, lost and at large in the big, bad world. Not a soul I know knows where I am. I’m free.” There was something about the space outside your head that got into the space inside your head. Something about being completely untethered and untraceable. Gone.

Today, though, we are followed on closed-circuit cameras, tracked by our EZ pass boxes, and willingly reined to a thousand corporations through our apps. We swipe our discount cards at the supermarket and for the cost of a few cents, Mr. Big Data Grocery knows what kind of ice cream we like, what toilet paper we use, whether we prefer Coke to Pepsi – and what medications we buy to “get us through this passion play,” as Joni Mitchell put it. Our web footprints trace our path through queries about music, menus, motels, taxes, estate planning, cancer symptoms … everything. Scary. To me at least.

Our visit to the Heineken Experience was fun and the behind-the-scenes marketing lesson we got from the sharp, engaging and delightful Nanne Van Der Leer was illuminating. She’s a stick of dynamite. But along with the brilliant strategy, a subtext that depressed me was also illuminated. Heineken, like every other modern firm, wants to know what I want before I know I want it; it wants to follow me wherever I go, installing auto-beacons everywhere that will trigger my downloaded Heineken app and send me a suggestion about what next to do with my life (hint: drink more Heineken).

Well, I’m all for that – the drinking of more Heineken, I mean. But I miss the ability to be forgotten, to get lost, to roam out on a frontier beyond surveillance. I worry that while we have been vigilant about “Big Brother” – i.e. Big Government lessening our freedom – and barricading our front door against his intrusions, his brother from another mother, Big Data, has snuck in through the back door, through the kitchen, to steal the cookies – i.e. our privacy … and, it seems to me, our autonomy and spontaneity. It reportedly doesn’t matter to millennials, and I don’t judge them because I don’t walk in their mocs. But it matters to me.

I’ve sometimes gotten lost in my travels in Europe, but with the looming shadow of Big Data trailing relentlessly behind me, knowing where I am even if I don’t … well, it takes a little of the lightness out of my step.

Some days I just want to fall in the forest and not make a sound.

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