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That Coincidental Advertisement is Not Just a Coincidence

I have never eaten a Bel Vita cracker in my life. I’d never even heard of the brand until I was visiting with my brother and he pulled them out of the cupboard. We had a short, forgettable conversation about these crackers — What are they? Are they good? Cool. Cool. — which I assumed would comprise my entire awareness and experience of them. I was wrong. Later that afternoon, I opened Twitter to discover a Bel Vita ad in my timeline. That’s strange, I thought.

At this point, we all have a story like that. Something we only spoke about — just words into the air — suddenly appears in our digital world. And typically, it’s something that we’d never even heard of before, so we know we haven’t searched for it. We haven’t created a trackable, digital trail by actually typing its name into a search engine, and yet, there it is. That’s why it’s so hard to ignore. That’s why the convergence of hearing about it and then seeing an advertisement for it is so hard to chalk up to mere coincidence. That’s why the idea that our phones are listening has gone from being a fanciful rant of the paranoid to the banal reality of the populace. Maybe it’s coincidence; maybe it’s more complicated; few care to differentiate.

But as the complexity increases, I suspect that the ineffable experience of these coincidences will become more jarring. It has for me.

Last week, I rounded the bend about halfway through my daily run. I was nearing the end of an audio book, in which a character — a writer — describes a series of interviews he conducts while developing a book on the subject of isolation. One of his interviews is with Michael Collins, the astronaut who remained in the command module for almost two days while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin explored the Moon. As I jogged up a hill, I thought to myself how surprising it was that I knew so little about Collins. Armstrong and Aldrin are, of course, household names. But had anyone asked me to write a list of famous astronauts, I’d have certainly left Collins out. I made a mental note to look him up when I got home.

Here’s the important part of the story: I did not look him up. I forgot all about Michael Collins until later that evening when a video in my YouTube feed caught my eye. It was a PBS interview with Michael Collins. I felt like this video was staring back at me, almost as if to say, yes, we are watching. I actually shivered.

How? I thought. How is it that after all this time in which I’d been unaware of this person, on the same day I learn about him from an audiobook a video about him just shows up among a row of recommended videos on YouTube? Is this some kind of synchronicity — some kind of strange alignment of things that is impossible to ignore, however trivial those things are? Perhaps. Or was it just a meaningless coincidence? It certainly could have been just that. Was it simply a matter of newly-informed recognition — that plenty of things about Collins had passed me by in the past, but I had never noticed them until now? I suppose that’s possible, too. But it’s also possible that these two digital experiences are connected technologically — that they do indeed have a causal relationship.

At this point, most of us have acquired a better understanding of digital advertising than we ever wanted or needed. We understand how the digital trail we leave is made of data, and we understand how companies can follow that trail. We understand enough to know when to go incognito and when to be annoyed by ads for the things we just purchased. And we understand enough about what we don’t know to accept the our devices are listening explanation for all those other situations that, without a better explanation, feel invasive, supernatural, and creepy. And yet, even with my knowledge of how these things work, I was still left perplexed by my experience of encountering Michael Collins twice in one day.

The digital advertising ecosystem is extremely complex. The passage of information through it is often not as direct as the digital trail metaphor presumes. For example, eavesdropping isn’t necessary to explain the apparent coincidence of my conversation with my brother about Bel Vita crackers and the ad that appeared in my Twitter feed afterward. Ad networks use a variety of data to determine the best times, places, and ways to reach customers. They cross reference existing customer data — the obvious stuff about who buys certain products already — with those customers’ personal networks. If a known, enthusiastic customer is near another person who is not a known customer, it makes sense to show the unknown person an ad. After all, if the enthusiastic customer talks about the product, the other person will be more likely to respond positively to the ad. That triangulation technique treats customer affinity like a virus. For the unaware, catching it feels either like a coincidence or like the immediate result of some kind of spying. The reality is more complex, but no less unsettlingly predetermined when you dissect it.

There may be a technological explanation for my experience with Michael Collins. Perhaps my phone was listening as I was listening. I wondered whether my phone could do that, could somehow “listen” to what I was listening to, extract keywords from that audio stream, and share them with ad networks. But then why wouldn’t I have seen videos in YouTube about other people mentioned in my book? Why was it just for the one person I had made a mental note to investigate further? As I thought about it more, I also began to question the likelihood that Amazon, the owner of Audible (the app I used to play the audiobook), would allow Google, the manufacturer of my phone, to extract realtime data from their app and use it to better target me in their ecosystem. It’s certainly technologically possible, but I’m also not sure that’s what actually was going on.

The experience left me wondering generally about listening. It’s simple enough to say something like my phone is listening, but the phone isn’t the listener. It’s the thing through which a long list of listeners listen. The manufacturer of the phone. The maker of the app running on the phone. The maker of the content running through the app. The service provider carrying the signal to the phone. The NSA, who run secret but not-so-secret yottabyte-crunching datacenters. They listen…to everything. But now, in the age of the informalization of the disinformation campaign — of “Fake News” — I wonder less about who is listening and more about who listens to the listeners.

The complexity of listening in this digital age is not just a matter of the chain of listeners growing longer and longer. The many systems and organizations that can access and use information we consider private is, indeed, a crowd. And what they do with our information is, indeed, complicated. But what is truly complex about listening is that information, itself, is not singular. Bel Vita, as a piece of information, is not simply information carried by audible speech, advertising metadata, or intentional keystrokes. In other words, we think of the identity, or shape, of information as singular — if it’s said, then the recording contains the words that contain the root information; if it’s written, then the text are the informational bedrock — when it is anything but. In fact, when it comes to listening, the many simultaneous states of information are something that plenty of people have understood for a long time — especially spies.


     A Teleprinter — Image sourced from Wikipedia.

During World War II, Bell Telephone manufactured a teleprinter encryption device for the US military. A teleprinter is basically a connected typewriter that was used to send messages over telephone lines. During wartime, of course, encrypting those messages was critical, as the nation’s telephone lines were anything but secure. But Bell quickly realized that their encryption wasn’t good enough. Their scientists discovered that they could still extract the text of messages, not by intercepting the telephone lines, but by detecting electromagnetic spikes emanating from the teleprinters themselves. Every keystroke would alter the electromagnetic spectrum in a measurable way. Suddenly, text is magnetism, and magnetism is text. Over the next decade, Bell would continue to find new ways of getting past their own encryption in an iterative pattern that continued to illuminate them and the larger intelligence community as to the physical nature of information, however invisible it was thought to be. Thus was born TEMPEST (Telecommunications Electronics Materials Protected from Emanating Spurious Transmissions), a NSA specification for protecting against data leakage, as well as, of course, a classified methodology for spying.

Every way we communicate creates many unintentional emanations — things like electrical signals, sounds, and vibrations — which can be detected, recorded, and interpreted. These are referred to, in the craft, as “unintentional intelligence-bearing signals.” As a result, TEMPEST comprises many, many informational vulnerabilities and many, many ways to spy.

The history of TEMPEST is a fascinating lesson in information theory. In 1985, Wim van Eck published one of the first unclassified technical papers describing how computer monitors can leak information through radiation, and how it was possible to extract that information from a distance using $15 worth of materials anyone could get at their local Radio Shack. This technique was referred to, in the cyberpunk parlance of the time, as “van Eck phreaking.” Later discoveries showed how information could be extracted by monitoring the LED patterns on modems, by measuring radiation shed by computer keyboards, by tuning a phone to detect FM frequency signals shed by PCs — a technique known as “AirHopping.” (The names are great; they’re part of the world-building.)

All of these techniques depend upon information being much more diverse and diffuse than we tend to think of it. And of course, we benefit from this principle in many ways. Radar, for example. Or the ability to detect and “see” a planet. So many of our pictures and sounds of planets are interpretations of radiation, not actual pictures or sounds in the conventional sense. It might be true to say that Venus, for example, “sounds” like this, but that doesn’t mean you’d actually hear its sinister bell-clanging drone if you were to press your ear up against the porthole of a spaceship in its orbit. The sound of a planet is a radio wave signal interpreted through audio. Its information has many manifestations.

Information has multiple identities. How many of them do we know?

Though we, as conscious information-clusters ourselves, can perceive information in so many ways and, through our ingenuity, make the list of those ways longer and longer, we will probably never know them all. Our own nature limits us. We understand information in ways that are fundamentally tied to our biology: what we can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, and how our brain processes those signals. We’ve extended our apprehension of information greatly beyond biology, of course. Technology gives us the power to create, capture, and contain more information than our bodies can on their own. And consciousness, too, is a development that puts our species — at least, as far as we can perceive — at an informational and existential advantage.

As far as I hope we will go with uncovering new layers of reality by discovering new information and new aspects of old information, what fascinates me most is what lies beyond even that. What information exists that we will never see?

It is often said that a parallel dimension is as close to us as anything we can touch in this one, but still forever out of reach. What an incredible thing. But, as mind-bending as it is for me to close my eyes and imagine something in front of me that is not there — another me, perhaps, living a very different life from the one I’m living now but still existing at the same time — it’s even more so to imagine that those boundaries are infinitely reductive. That if something could exist, yet not be seen or felt all around me, it could also exist within me. That this thing I call “I” is actually a loosely-tied network of information immersed in an even denser field of information that may call itself “I,” too. If that can be said to be possible, then that means that reality itself, like its inhabitants and its information, is not singular.

Nothing is one thing; everything is many.

— Christopher Butler, Jan 22, 2021, Durham, NC

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