Oh, Noes! They’re reading our mailz!

Do you remember the Gmail kerfuffle back when Google started that service? Gmail pays for itself (ostensibly) through targeted ads. The ads are targeted, of course, by what’s in your in-box.

Oh, no! Google’s gonna read your mail!

This did not alarm me. First, my e-mail is pretty boring most of the time. I don’t even want to read it. (I also don’t worry about the government spying on my e-mail, except at the conceptual level.) Second, of course, was that no human was going to be going through everyone’s mail. A computer was going to “read” it and take some wild guess about what you’d be interested in buying.

Lastly, of course, I knew the algorithm wasn’t going to be very good. Getting a computer to “understand” simple, basic English is marginally possible. Getting a computer to understand complex English, with allusions and context and humor? Probably not in our lifetimes. (Sorry, singularity guys.)

But I didn’t know how bad–how sloppy, even–the algorithm was going to be. How bad is it? Well, when you go to your spam folder?

You get recipes for Spam™. Spam™ Imperial Tortilla Sandwiches, Spam™ Swiss Pie, Spam™ Quiche, Spam™ Breakfast Burritos (serve with salsa!) and on and on. I might think it was a clever ad campaign by Hormel or an ironic statement by Google–but it’s always a Spam™ recipe, every single time I click on it.

So, not only is the advertising not targeted based on content, Google would seem to be serving ads based on the text they put on the page–not even distinguishing between your mail (or spam) and their own designation of items as spam.

As I said, the singularity may be less than imminent.

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