Body Snatchers

I think my cat works for Nielsen. Whenever I’m watching TV or sprawled on the couch listening to the radio, the animal just sits there in front of me, staring with big, green, unblinking eyes.

Doesn’t move, doesn’t make a sound. She just sits there, watching me, sometimes for hours.

I’m convinced she’s collecting data. She’s a feline focus-group moderator, a portable kitty meter, recording my every habit. This is a cyborg cat, programmed for covert research. It creeps me out to no end.

I’m not being that paranoid. I trust no one and nothing in my pad, not even my pet. That’s because measurement technology has progressed to truly disturbing levels.

We have portable people meters that clip onto our belts like pagers, recording the media we are exposed to. Every time we turn on our computers, someone somewhere is learning something about us. We can’t buy a can of cat food anymore without a scanner recording that micro slice of our consumer life.

And it’s only going to get worse.

Satellites don’t just give us traffic information; they monitor where our cars are going. Soon, our cell phones will start selling us stuff.

I recently read that marketers are tinkering with technology that would enable TV sets to detect who is in the room—even, if I remember correctly, when it’s turned off.

This isn’t database building. This is digital home invasion. If Big Brother were real, he’d be an adman.

There’s no limit to the frightening implications. Refrigerators, for example, that record what you eat and how much, and then say things like: “Jack, that’s the third piece of pound cake you’ve eaten today. Go on a diet—or get to Vons by the end of the day for 50 cents off on Sara Lee.”

The whole house could be wired for market research, its devices conspiring to get you to consume. Lock you in until you agree to test-drive a Hyundai.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a marketing Luddite. I understand that data is power in a fragmented and obscenely cluttered marketplace. And advertising is a vital and (until last year, at least) vibrant part of our everyday lives and daily commerce.

In a consumer-controlled world, getting information to your target at the right time is essential to success. I recognize that technology’s ability to give people opt-in power—allowing them to get advertising when they agree to receive it, rather than having it thrown at them—is a good thing.

I also know that Americans’ dirty little secret is that, deep down, they really like advertising, even though they publicly rail against it. (Municipalities and legislators, not individual consumers, are the ones who ban billboards and hold hearings on Internet privacy.)

But if technology keeps sneaking into our lives and our domiciles, giving away all our secrets, not even Charlotte Beers will be able to stem the inevitable and probably very ugly backlash.

In the meantime, if anybody needs a pet, e-mail me. I’ll even throw in the litter box, which I think is beeping suspiciously.