When searching for an adjective to describe our comprehensively surveilled networked world — the one bookmarked by the NSA at one end and by Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Co. at the other — "Orwellian" is the word that people generally reach for.
But "Kafkaesque" seems more appropriate. The term is conventionally defined as "having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre or illogical quality," but Frederick Karl, Franz Kafka's most assiduous biographer, regarded that as missing the point. "What's Kafkaesque," he once told the New York Times, "is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world."
A vivid description of this was provided recently by Janet Vertesi, a sociologist at Princeton University. She gave a talk at a conference describing her experience of trying to keep her pregnancy secret from marketers. Her report is particularly pertinent because pregnant women are regarded by online advertisers as one of the most valuable entities on the Internet. You and I are worth, on average, only 10 cents each. But a pregnant woman is valued at $1.50 because she is about to embark on a series of purchasing decisions stretching well into her child's lifetime.