TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has chosen his Word of the Year. Actually, it's a phrase, and it comes from the unsettling feeling we have these days that online or off, our moves are being tracked in ways we aren't aware of.
GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: Infobesity, lumbersexual, phablet - as usual, the items that stand out as candidates for Word of the Year are like its biggest pop songs - catchy but ephemeral. But even a fleeting expression can sometimes encapsulate the zeitgeist. That's why I'm nominating God view for the honor. It's the term the car company Uber uses for a map view that shows them the locations of all the Uber cars in an area and silhouettes of the people who order them. The media seized on the term this fall when it came out that the company had been entertaining themselves and their guests by pairing that view with their customer data. So they could display the movements of journalists and VIP customers as they made their way around New York.
Those reports came on top of earlier criticisms of Uber for taking a prurient interest in its customers' movements. Not long before, an Uber data scientist had blogged about tracking what he called rides of glory. Those were the customers who booked rides late on weekend nights and then returned home a few hours later, presumably after one night stands. You could think of that as the Uber Santa view. He doesn't just know when you've been sleeping but where.
Those were awkward revelations for Uber, which has also been under fire for its sharp-elbowed tactics with regulators and competitors and a truculent attitude toward its critics. The so-called sharing economy depends on users providing a company with enough personal information to reassure others that they're OK to rent to or drive around with. As Airbnb put it last year, when they asked users to provide their Facebook contacts and pictures of their drivers' licenses, there is no place for anonymity in a trusted community. So it doesn't look good when the people entrusted with the information come off as a crew of brash striplings who seem to take privacy casually.
Calling a display God view didn't help dispel that impression, particularly coming from a company whose name already suggested a certain Teutonic grandiosity. But if Uber's choice of words was ill-advised, it's still a pretty apt name for the way technology sees us now. Every week brings another indication that the world is becoming a vast panopticon, a place where everybody can be observed without being aware of it. An app displays the Facebook profile of every woman in the immediate vicinity who's logged in on Foursquare. A website streams live video from thousands of unsecured webcams along with their map locations. And we're dogged by those uncannily personalized ads as we browse the web.
In a course I co-teach at Berkeley, we ask our students to try to figure out what Google knows about them. One young woman tried switching to a new browser and entering searches for products like Stride Rite Shoes and Barry Manilow albums. She wasn't surprised when ads for menopause supplements started to appear on the web pages she visited, but it was unsettling when her boyfriend started seeing ads for Viagra.
What we're talking about here, of course, is the sense that the world is getting more and more creepy. That word has been around too long to be a candidate for Word of the Year, but it's clearly in the running for Word of the Era. It goes back to the time of Dickens, but we use it more often and more broadly than ever before. It's our aesthetic reaction to everything from John Malkovich to Furbies, and it's become our reflexive response to the unnerving promiscuity of digital information. Scholars ponder it. You see articles in academic journals and law reviews with titles like "A Theory Of Creepiness" and "Leakiness And Creepiness In App Space." As the thinking goes, understand creepiness and you've located the boundaries of personal privacy, the line you mustn't trespass.
Creepy's a more elusive notion than scary. Scary things are the ones that set our imagination to racing with dire scenarios of cyberstalkers, identity thieves or government surveillance, whereas with creepy things, our imagination doesn't really know where to start. There doesn't have to be any concrete threat we can point to. There's only the unease we feel when we realize we've been the object of somebody's unbidden gaze. A while ago, my wife was caught by Google Street View early one morning as she was opening our gate after taking out the garbage. It creeped her out. You can see me from Buenos Aires, she said, and I wouldn't even wear those pants to the Safeway.
Not that most of the builders of the technology are actively trying to creep us out, though they're willing to come close. As Google's Eric Schmidt said, Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line but not cross it. But that line is constantly moving as we get more and more used to being exposed. Time was when we'd be creeped out if somebody Googled us before meeting or a first date. Now we're fine with that and even post profiles to make it easier.
Follow that logic, some people say, and the creepiness of technology may come to seem a passing phase. But this isn't really about technology in the first place. What we find creepy isn't those God views in themselves, but the people we fear might be out there using them. There may be no more creeps in the world than in earlier times, but there've never been so many opportunities for acting like one.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information.
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