When The Observer talked to Chris Dixon earlier this week about technophobes and what the tech industry can do to allay their fears about the future, the Hunch co-founder emphasized his belief that every tool can be used negatively and positively. He brought up targeted online advertising as an example: sure, he said, the technology that allows vendors to deliver ads based on users’ personal data could be used to nefarious ends, but in principle, he does not have a problem with it.
“I personally don’t think that targeted ads are scary or threatening,” he said. “It’s probably more effective for the advertiser and the user. I’d rather get ads that are relevant to me than ones that aren’t, and I don’t see the harm in that.”
He went on to address people who report feeling queasy whenever they open their email and see ads whose delivery has clearly been triggered by something in their inbox: “Some of the same people complaining about the death of the newspaper are the same people complaining about these advertisements,” Mr. Dixon said. “To the extent that [internet advertising] can be improved, you can also potentially make a lot of these media companies viable. The economics of the press depends a lot on the success of these advertising technologies, so if you want to kill off the advertising, you’re probably also going to kill off a lot of potentially positive things, like a vibrant free press.”
In a separate conversation, we asked novelist Jennifer Egan, whose latest book A Visit From the Goon Squad ends on a chapter set in a techno-dystopian future, what she thinks of that view — specifically, how she evaluates people (like Mr. Dixon) who say they’d prefer ads to be specifically tailored to their interests than not.
“It’s an attempt to sort of own and be comfortable with a kind of manipulation of one’s self– to decide it’s not manipulation,” Ms. Egan said. “It’s to decide you’re in control and that this is all serving you. That’s a very good way of not looking at the fact that quite the opposite is happening.”