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Barton think: I am not me

About the author

Described by the Times as “the world’s most enthusiastic man” and the Daily Mail as someone whose “wit and enthusiasm can enliven the dullest of topics”,  Quentin is a broadcaster, film critic and author best known for presenting the UK's most listened to science programme, The Material World on BBC Radio 4 . It’s “quite the best thing on radio”, according to Bill Bryson. You can find him on Twitter at @materialworld

(Copyright: Science Photo Library)

(Copyright: Science Photo Library)

Why does hi-tech and supposedly personalised online advertising create a virtual image of ourselves that is so very annoying?

Joey Barton is a man of many hidden talents.

A big-mouthed, medium-skilled footballer with English Premier League side QPR, a darling of the Twitterati with over a million followers, and someone with a much troubled past – look him up if you want the gory details – often credited with being able to start a fight in an empty room.  

But he is also someone who is in the vanguard of an escalating battle between who we really are and the distorted reflection bounced back at us by our technology.

Let me explain.

Barton recently revealed via Twitter that not only had he begun playing sim videogame Football Manager 2012, but that he’d opted to take charge of QPR and immediately “had my 1st argument with myself”. He found the digital Joey Barton so aggravating that he – the real he – announced: “Gonna have to quit, cos am doing my own head in”.    

Very funny. Except that this is a fight we are all becoming increasingly embroiled in. Every day we have to combat a computerised version of ourselves based on our internet searches and purchases, duking it out with these virtual shadows shaped in the light of everything we do online. And, to borrow a phrase from our pal Joey, it is doing our heads in.

I am currently swamped with emails and banner ads pushing double glazing, bargain offers for – mostly 3D – Blu-ray players and links to all things HP Lovecraft. Why? Because in the last couple of weeks I had a leaky window and looked up how to fix it, got a replacement 2D Blu-ray player and went on eBay to buy some knitted Cthulhus (long story, but they are cute).   

This is supposedly a huge, customised, customer-friendly advance on the old days, where everyone got the same advertising regardless of age, taste and geography. But it is still so wide of being useful as to provoke intense frustration. I needed a window sealed, not replaced and I’ve just bought a Blu-ray player, so I don’t want another, especially one with gimmicky 3D. Although I must admit I was tempted by some of the Cthulhu/Lovecraft stuff.  

Personalised advertising is not entirely hopeless. It’s just that for all of the effort and expenditure that has gone into web analytics, e-marketing and other attempts to distil the essence of who we are from how we behave online, why does the attempt at being individually-tailored end up so shoddy and ill-fitting? 

This, though, is only the beginning of the horror. Lovecraft himself memorably said that “things have learned to walk that ought to crawl”, and now they threaten to gallop us into a future scarily close to the one depicted in Minority Report. One where instant facial scanning meant that Tom Cruise’s character John Anderton – and everyone else – is bombarded with personalised ads: “John Anderton, you could use a Guinness right about now.”

It made for a fun sequence in a Spielberg movie, but imagine how stupendously irritating it would be if that happened on a daily basis. “John Anderton, you could use a Guinness right about now” – see, it’s annoying already, even though I’ve only done it twice and you’re probably not called John Anderton. 

There are already teams taking big strides to make it possible. Japanese tech firm NEC has had a camera-based system for a couple of years that can identify the gender and approximate age of a person. New York-based Immersive Labs take it one step further and use cameras to also gauge the attention level of a passer-by so that adverts can be tailored to your level of interest. Others include motion capture, touch screens or technologies that connect with your phone, whilst some are even working on reading emotions so they can target ads to your particular mood – but the only state I can foresee being in is perpetual anger at getting harangued every time I walk down the street.

We may come to look back on what we have now as an age of innocence, where attempts at customised ads were amusingly inept rather than geared to increasingly aggressive visual and verbal assaults. It seems inevitable that ever higher-tech advertising will increasingly make us our own worst enemies, subjecting us to what in effect is a form of self-inflicted harassment.

And unlike Joey Barton and his Football Manager alter-ego, we won’t have the option of selling these poor reflections of ourselves to another club.

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You can hear more from Quentin every week in the Material World podcast.