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.
This sense of our shared vulnerability, of our loss of control over who gets to see what, is surely why Internet Noise took off. Wired published an article about it soon after its début, and, within a day, the post had been shared more than thirty thousand times on Facebook—a somewhat ironic measurement unit, as one of the arguments that Internet-service providers used when lobbying Congress was that it wasn't fair that they be banned from collecting data on your online activities while Facebook and Netflix are permitted to do so. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg, who claims that people don't value their privacy like they used to, just spent thirty million dollars buying the houses adjacent to his own, for the sake of greater privacy.
The man behind Internet Noise, Dan Schultz, is a thirty-year-old programmer who lives—and has lived since his youth—just north of Philadelphia. He went to Carnegie Mellon, where he studied information systems, and then went on to the M.I.T. Media Lab, where he got his master's degree, in 2012. The M.I.T. Media Lab is broken up into approximately twenty-seven research groups, he explained. He was in two: Civic Media ("How to use tech to make meaning online, to guide people to meaning") and information ecology ("Making information available at the right moment—and in a natural way. Making information more naturally integrated into your day-to-day life").
When I asked what "naturally integrated information" might look like, he told me about the project of a classmate, John Kestner, called "The Proverbial Wallet." This wallet has a little motor that's connected, via Bluetooth, to your bank accounts. "It used to be you could see the money you have by what was in your wallet, but then came credit cards," Schultz said. With this motorized wallet, if you were spending a lot of money and reaching your credit limit, the motor would make it harder to pry open the wallet.
Schultz's own thesis project was called "Truth Goggles," a browser that "tried to protect you from yourself as you are reading," as he put it, by fact-checking the statements on your screen. I asked whether all twenty-seven groups at the M.I.T. Media Lab were as altruistic and progressively minded as his. "There was one really big group, synthetic neurobiology, focussed on the brain," he replied. "There were forty of them, and they kept to themselves and lived in the basement. They were going to put fibre optics into mouse brains to try to control which way the mouse moves." Schultz has a comedian's timing, and we both laughed. But this scenario, of something controlling you without you knowing it, has been a nightmare steadily encroaching.
Schultz launched Internet Noise the night that the bill passed and has been tinkering with it in the days since. The code is open source, and people have been sending him notes and suggestions. "I have to approve the edits, but anyone can see the code," he said. His first version chose words utterly at random, "but they were so obscure that all they produced was lists of uncommon words." The current iteration chooses two words from among the four thousand most commonly used nouns and then strings them together. It was a happy conversation until he mentioned that the tool is symbolic. "Advertisers will know it's a robot," he said. "This is a noise generator. We are talking about signal processing. Humans signal-process every second of every day. When I hear a sound, my brain is processing that sound. Noise does not affect the signal. It is around the signal. We might be annoyed by noise, but even if there is static on the radio we can still pick up the melody. We just might miss some of the subtle nuances. Same thing goes for your fingerprint online. The algorithms are able to tell."
"What it does do is make a form of protest," he continued. "It is generating noise. It might be bothering somebody. You are not doing harm by using it." There is a great deal of value in a tool that raises the larger question of how much manipulation we are vulnerable to, and who will protect us. The era of social media and the smartphone has played out mostly with the Obama Presidency as a backdrop. What happens when more vindictive political forces gain control over these levers?
Nevertheless, the realization that using Internet Noise is a symbolic act left me glum. Who wants a dishwasher that makes all the right noises but doesn't really clean the dishes? (A pretty good description of my dishwasher, as it happens.) But, when I went and looked at the ever-renewing browser again, the first thing to pop up was from Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." "However, my attention was suddenly snatched from such matters" was the first line I read before my browser switched to a Web page with the headline "The Mind of the Anti-social Birder," followed by search results for the phrases "American diva," and then "multimedia impulse." The sequences were, at times, so resonant that I would have thought a human mind might have been making them up. I realized that, in a way, a human mind was: the words were placed there before me, and it was up to me to lend them meaning.
If I sat there long enough, Internet Noise would no doubt take me to the opening paragraph of George W. S. Trow's classic "Within the Context of No Context," published in this magazine, in 1980. It reads, "Wonder was the grace of the country. Any action could be justified by that: the wonder it was rooted in. Period followed period, and finally the wonder was that things could be built so big. Bridges, skyscrapers, fortunes, all having a life first in the marketplace, still drew on the force of wonder. But then a moment's quiet. What was it now that was built so big? Only the marketplace itself. Could there be wonder in that? The size of the con?"