By Thomas Beller
The New Yorker
Sometime before dawn on March 29th, not too many hours after Congress approved legislation that allows Internet-service providers to sell your browsing history to whoever wants to buy it, a coder named Dan Schultz released a search randomizer called Internet Noise, which offers a way of veiling one’s real interests online. I heard about it that night, went straight to the charmingly bare-bones page, and clicked the “Make some noise” button. A new browser tab opened and began to refresh every few seconds with search results based on random pairings of words. “Fact cereal,” “fire mind,” and “raft flanker” were the first ones; “final hotel,” “component nation,” and “giraffe cloister” soon followed. I stared at this whimsical procession for a while and then went to bed. The browser refreshed with random word combinations while I slept—an accident of timing that may have influenced how I think about Internet Noise. Upon waking, I reviewed my browser history. All the random word pairings had the strange associative logic of a dream, as though I had been made privy to the Internet’s unconscious.
I kept the browser tab open throughout the day. Now and then I would check in, and I found each visit hypnotizing. It was interesting to note what vanished immediately from my mind and what lingered: a PDF about the aquifers of West Central Florida; a man reading a Susan Minot story out loud in the privacy of his own room (a mere eighty views on YouTube, but his dark room and dramatic whisper are now lodged in my imagination); a painting from the seventeenth century, “Bearded Man with a Beret.” At one point I checked in to discover an article titled “Anna Nicole Smith: Cleavage in Bankruptcy.” I had enough time to grasp that the article was about an intricacy of bankruptcy law that involves something called cleavage and had nothing directly to do with Anna Nicole Smith, before the browser refreshed to something else.
In today’s attention economy, five seconds is long enough to be exasperating but brief enough to justify waiting for the next refresh. Many of the word pairings sounded like song titles for an indie-rock band; “Beret Appendix,” “Flesh Depression,” and “Antler Topic” would look at home on a Pavement record. But it wasn’t just the search words providing a hit of Dada-poetry pleasure, it was the search results, too: “Drop Robert” led to the lyrics of a Robert Palmer song, “Pressure Drop”; the first result for “Lamb Style” took me to an article titled “Roald Dahl’s Writing Style in Lamb to the Slaughter”; “Flesh Depression” took me to an article on a vitamin-supplement Web site headlined “What Causes Flesh Depression Of The Fingertips.” I had never really thought about this, and pressed a fingernail into a fingertip and watched the depression—in the other sense of the word—linger. The article begins, “If you press your fingertips against anything, you will get a depression in your fingertips. If you look around for depression information, you will find that there is not much available.” I sat stunned by the deadpan nonsense of these lines. Then the Web site refreshed.
When I spoke with friends, I kept referring to this tool as the “Internet Noise Machine,” an embellishment that seemed to make sense. Like a Roomba or a dishwasher, Internet Noise is a cleaning appliance—even though it achieves cleanliness by creating an obscuring veil, a kind of digital squid ink. Internet Noise is scrubbing your traces online, removing the evidence of your real self. At the end of my first day of Internet Noise, I read Ashley Feinberg’s detailed account of how she sleuthed out the private Twitter and Instagram accounts of the F.B.I. director, James Comey. Reading about this confluence of the relatively banal details of Comey’s life—his son played basketball at Kenyon—and how it led to his hidden social-media account reminded me again how even the most consequential public figures have private lives, and also that our private lives have a political consequence. We live in a moment when our government has too little transparency and our own private lives have too much.
Picture: Yusuf1020 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons