Beyond digesting ducks

Medium-sized data and the street organ’s mannequin.

Doc Searls:

I think the biggest reason people are rejecting ads can be summed up in one word: tracking. Over the past decade, companies have increasingly used technology lurking beneath the surface of online ads to capture as much data about us as possible. Advertisers don’t have to build this capability for themselves: they rely on ad delivery networks that claim they can show relevant ads to people no matter which website they’re visiting. Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard Business School calls this rampant practice “surveillance capitalism.”

Perhaps the most bizarre illustration of this phenomenon at work is a poster published in 2013 by IBM and the Aberdeen Group research firm, headlined “The Big Datastillery.” It shows “clickstreams” (the details of our every mouse movement or finger swipe online), social media, and other sources of data flowing through pipes into a big hopper. At the bottom, “customer interaction optimization” and “marketing optimization” spigots pour distilled goop into empty beakers moving down a conveyor belt. Each empty beaker represents the “right person” getting the “right offer” through the “right channel” at the “right time.” Near the end of the belt, each beaker farts gases upward into a funnel collecting “campaign metrics” to feed back into the top of the hopper.

Crap in, crap out, 1 but this is clearly a massive advance over Vaucanson’s 1738 mechanical defecating duck – for example, the latter didn’t follow you home and rummage through your porn collection:

Some 18th century French writers have the temerity to contradict the English-language Wikipedia: they say that the duck did actually work, although imitations of it didn’t. I am not sure that Voltaire is with them when in 1741 he writes re a provincial play whose subject I will not mention for fear of losing my head:

It is said that the taste for barbs and gibes is the only thing in fashion today, and that without the voice of [opera diva Nicole le Maure] and the duck of Vaucanson you would have nothing that would cause you to recollect the glory of France. 2

One bon mot deserves another. Jessica Riskin, The Defecating Duck, or, the Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life:

by building a machine that played the flute and another that shat, and placing them alongside each other, Vaucanson, rather than demonstrating the equivalence of art and shit as the products of mechanical processes, was testing the capacity of each, the artistic and the organic product, to distinguish the creatures that produced them from machines.

Maybe someone will be able to tell me what if anything Jacques du Phly/Duphly‘s “La de Vaucanson” (Pièces de clavecin, Book IV (1768)), has to do with the duck:

Dogs and children all agree that the organ’s mannequin is a wonderful thing:

… but I am trying to tempt the taxman to progress it to something more reactive than Vaucanson but less intrusive than Facebook & Co.


  1. Out of curiosity I sometimes turn my browser’s adblocker off (but the only relevant ads pointed at me are for stuff I’ve already bought), and I recently added an ad block on another site (Google ad revenues don’t cover the postage home).
  2. On dit que le goût des mauvaises pointes & des quolibets est la seule chose qui soit aujourd’hui de mode, & que sans la voix de la le Maure, & le canard de Vaucanson, vous n’auriez rien que fît ressouvenir de la gloire de la France.