The old dog learns new tricks

David Kennedy
Director of Eurescom

There is a common saying that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, based on the idea that many people are unable or unwilling to do things differently, if they have been doing them one way for a long time.

Big Brother is watching you

As I get older, I find it easier to have an overview perspective of many of the changes proposed to us and can see them in the context of the impact they will have on our lives. I know I am resisting being fully integrated by refusing to have a smart watch to monitor me as I talk, move and even sleep. However, I recognised that these capabilities are interesting – even desirable – for others.

As I think about it, the question is not black and white – it is more complex in terms of trying to understand, where it is of benefit to me to share data and where is it an invasion of my privacy. For example, I have noticed that there is a direct correlation between the auctions I look at on eBay and the ads that get offered to me on Facebook. Clearly these guys are sharing information. But is this so bad? I was looking for something specific on eBay, and if this is available through Facebook, this is actually helping me find what I want.

However, I can’t tell these systems when I have actually bought something. This means they keep offering me ads for something I have already paid for, which is only going to annoy me – particularly if they offer it for a cheaper price than I paid.

You can also distort your profile by making a purchase for others. I am not sure how my online profile changed after I bought a leg waxing kit for my wife, but I did notice a significant difference in the ads I was offered after that. The level of this profiling is such that when you load a web page, there can actually be an online auction of the ad space on the page to product advertisers, based on your profile, within the time it takes you to load the page.

Fight or flight

Having learned that systems are profiling me regardless of the permissions I gave, the question is if you can counteract this or even if you want to. I have to admit, I am not totally anti such targeting, but I have limits. I do not allow Siri to be active on my phone, because she will listen all the time to see if I need her help. I have been very annoyed to find occasionally in conversation with someone that she was active and listening from their smart watch or phone and actually tried to join in the conversation. This is too intrusive.

However, if I was alone in the house, maybe recovering from illness or injury, I probably would really appreciate being able to shout at a box to do jobs or contact people for me. Again, it comes down to context and trust. I am obviously prepared to allow some intrusion for a visible benefit. The real problem is that it is very difficult to feel you are in control and can make the right choices to choose this.

Cookies are not always sweet

The recent laws on data protection and the use of cookies to capture the permissions has not helped as much as I would like. First many web pages make it very difficult to have a clear idea about their policies as they ask first a general question where you either give full permission or open a long set of specific questions. The nasty trick is that if you reject all cookies, they use this as the basis for not holding that decision, so the next time you visit their page, you are forced to go through the whole charade again. In this way you get frustrated and you eventually accept all cookies to avoid being asked again.

What to do

As a confirmed old dog, I think I do have to learn new tricks to survive in this new world. I could make my life simpler by relaxing and just saying “yes to all” when asked, but I know this will increase the noise level in my life. What I want to do is customise the world to my comfortable level of sharing info, but to do this I somehow have to know enough about how systems work and where I am leaving traces and sharing elements of my profile.

Of course, if I had my personal version of Siri, Alexa or whoever that was clearly mine and not public, “she” could manage this for me. Maybe this is the answer, old dogs need personal avatars to learn the new tricks for them.