What Am I Thinking Now?

by guest blogger Renee James, essayist and blogger

I’m going on record with the following: It’s just plain creepy that approximately one minute after I look at purses on Target.com, I receive an email from a designer promoting clutch bags. Or that after looking at cruises online, the next time I log on to The New York Times, the page is packed with river cruise ads and European travel promotions.

And I work in marketing, for God’s sake.

I didn’t think this kind of promotion, masquerading as “meeting my needs as a consumer,” could get any more intrusive, but then I read about a new online platform from a company called Realeyes. According to Online Media Daily, Realeyes has found a way to utilize “computer vision to read faces and measure human emotion.” And measure human emotion.

So it’s not enough that everyone everywhere knows where we’ve been online. Now with help from Realeyes, companies can not only see what we click on, but they can measure how we react to their messages, as well, and guage whether or not those reactions are positive and basically assess our entire experience with their ad or video or online content.

This isn’t exactly new. For years, companies have measured how we respond to their messages and products, including our interaction with their products on store shelves. But at least we’re shopping at that point; we’re actually viewing products in a display and making some decisions about a purchase. If learning more about how I interact with that display or their products makes a company more successful, I don’t begrudge the company that.

It’s the online component that’s vaguely—or maybe not so vaguely—disturbing. Sure, we’re still shopping, and maybe the retail environment we grew up with will be all but gone in just one more generation. But still, it’s creepy. I’m not wild about the fact that one of the largest packaged-goods companies on the planet uses technology—utilizing our own webcams, by the way—to track our eye movements and determine whether we’re even looking at their ads or other content while we’re online.

Even Xbox, dearly loved by an entire generation of consumers, is crossing a line somewhere. The games company’s new Xbox One has a camera that must remain on for the unit to function. (The microphone stays on at all times, too.) All the games may be played only by those with an Xbox Live account, which must be verified daily to be able to play, even if the game chosen is offline. It means players can no longer share games or purchase used games. In other words, Microsoft wants to know what you buy, what you play, when you play, and how long you play.

And the hard data isn’t quite enough. Eye movements, heart rate, and mood are captured on the Kinect sensor and—surprise!—Microsoft may, in fact, use that data to target advertising to users in the years ahead.

It’s not even the technology that’s the most disturbing part of this to me. That cyber-genie has been out of its virtual reality bottle for decades. No, it feels like we’re slowly losing our ability to move from Point A to Point B entirely on our own. I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that the child who grows up with a relentless marketing model that indicates, “If you like this, you may like this…”—one that addresses everything from Dr. Suess to Doc Martens to Dr. Phil—may grow up to be an indecisive and naïve adult.

Life is not a multiple-choice quiz. Sometimes you don’t have clue one about what to do next or what choices make the most sense. Sometimes it feels like you have no choices at all, let alone good ones. Believe it or not, at some point we may be expected to think for ourselves and define our own path, without the benefit of the universe offering a few closely connected options “we might like.” At no time will there be signs posted around the big moments in life that indicate something like, “People who chose that also chose this….”

Maybe when enough of us we exhibit behavior indicating that we have almost completely lost the ability to think for ourselves, we’ll be done with this chapter. And on to something even worse.

Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations’: A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. Her blog, It’s Not Me, It’s You, addresses topics that mystify her on a regular basis.


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7 Responses to What Am I Thinking Now?

  1. Paula June 28, 2013 at 7:46 am #

    Alarming! I switch my Web cam off (yes, I still have one that will let me) when I am not using it. And I just say no to Xbox & Co. But how many (especially younger?) people accept these changes as a matter of course, saying, “If I want to use the product, I have to play by the company’s rules?” Scary. Information collection by private companies and interests is far more intrusive than government collection of data (but that’s another problem…)

    What can we do about it?

  2. robert marlley June 29, 2013 at 3:15 pm #

    “Big Brother Has Arrived”
    Hey Renee, i hate be the bearer of bad news, but “Big Brother” arrived about 20 years ago. By all means “go tell Alice” and welcome to the 20th century. Don’t look now, but they even got these little walkie-talkies that you can call your friends on and they contain all the information in the world, and you can get into arguments with complete strangers who you’ll never me. AND….and this is the most important point….you can see millions of pictures of cats! Crazy uh?

  3. Donna in Delaware June 29, 2013 at 6:18 pm #


  4. Renee July 1, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    Thanks for the notes, everyone.

    Robert, you’re right, of course. This isn’t exactly “news,” which is why I referenced the decades surrounding the Cyber-genie/bottle idea. : )

    I’m more concerned about the non-tech fallout of all it, including how we think and process daily life. To echo Donna, that’s what’s chilling.

    Paula – I wish I knew! I guess we all choose – as much as we can – to opt out of it. But that option seems to diminish daily.

  5. Heather July 4, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    My thought was that tracking eye movements, emotional reactions, amount of time playing, and which games were played could have a useful research component toward mental and physical health. Unfortunately, instead, it seems that people will use this technology as research to again make money, rather than help others lead better lives. *sigh* So this is what it means to be “civilized?”

  6. Sheryl July 12, 2013 at 11:18 am #

    Black electrician’s tape is a wonderful thing for blocking the camera and cheap enough that you can take it off when you need the camera and replace it when you don’t.

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