My nearest local bookstore (Third Place Books) hosted a fancy shmancy lunch with Jonathan Lethem last week. I treated myself to a ticket, joined 37 other attendees in the cozy space of the downstairs pub, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I went in wanting to talk with him about his family's left-leaning history along with that of the activists at the center of Lethem's engaging new novel, Dissident Gardens. I left with some thought provoking leads. Along with a not necessarily healthy paranoia about asking questions that leave an electronic footprint.
Lethem generously offered a long answer to my basic question - what interests you most about old-school commies gone to seed? Some of his answer echoed from what I'm finding in Dissident Gardens. Plenty of it, however, prompted me to reach out in pursuit elsewhere. Thanks to Edward Snowden, I'm now also just a teenie-weenie bit curious what sort of bells my random searching might sound like to NSA metadata mining operation(s) like PRISM.
More tangibly, Lethem uses the history of the Left (and, in particular, the American Communist Party) as the base layer of Dissident Gardens. His fascinating suggestions led me to search for background on writers like Vivian Gornick, "Marxist sportswriters," and brought me back to the massive FBI file of a source for my own work. Combined with all the other stuff I regularly read on the internet, is it ridiculous to think I've bumped askew someone's algorithmic profile of me? Only if you're unwilling to see the flip side of an otherwise innocent proposition.
My takeaway might be that we are not a simple sum of the things we search for on the internet. Any more than our pre-internet ancestors were accurately measured by what newspapers they read or what meetings they attended. It's just a great deal easier to jump to conclusions these days. We're still a long way off from the ominous endgame used in "Minority Report" and similar "thought crime" sci-fi. Hopefully.