When does technology can stop assisting our actions and start directing them? And what can we do about it?
A while back, Gmail started suggesting responses for me. They’re generally pretty solid – when asked if I can make a meeting, it offers up “Sounds good, I’ll be there!” and “Sorry, can’t make it” as options; a document for review triggers “Got it, thanks!” and “These are great!” (Gmail-bot is unwaveringly enthusiastic and considers exclamation marks the default punctuation for ending sentences).
All this is super-convenient, especially if I’m punching out a reply on a mobile device with my stubby sausage-fingers while walking down the street carrying a hot beverage. But it’s also insidious.
Communication is about more than just responding with the fewest possible clicks. It’s about tone, feeling, and personality. It’s about connecting.
When we let an algorithm answer for us, we save time. But what do we lose? What would that response look like if it were human? Are there questions that could be asked, or social niceties beyond “thanks!”?
And remember, regardless of how the product people at Google pitched it, features like this aren’t added out of altruism. If Gmail saves me keystrokes, I’ll use it more, meaning Google can scrape the details of my virtual life more effectively, the better to follow me around the internet with advertising for variable rate mortgages and dad jeans and other non-needs that occupy my online time-wasting.
Still, all in all, pretty harmless. and if I eschew a personalized “Hey, Marlene, thanks for the feedback, do you still have that cottage because I’m free all summer” reply in favour of an automated “Great! Thanks! This is the best thing ever!” it’s not the apocalypse.
So to cycle back to the original question, should we worry about this?
Damn right we should, because it will own us if we let it.
Want to buy a thing? The machine will help. It will use all that it knows about you – which is a lot, because even if you don’t Facebook, Google, or Amazon much, your friends, family and demographic cohort do – to guide you through the online maze and make sure you land on products and services that you are predisposed to buy. The machine will serve you the ad, tell you where to buy, and if you need the thing RIGHT NOW and can’t wait for next day delivery, it will point the way to the store. When you leave the house, the machine will turn off your lights, play soft jazz music for the cat, then queue up some TV for you to watch when you get home. Hell, it knows you so well that you’d be crazy NOT to do what it suggests.
Meanwhile, it’s recording all your responses and storing it in a massive server farm, the better to flesh out its predictive model.
The machine knows the things you want it to know (when’s my next meeting?) and the things you wish it didn’t know (once your spouse walked in unexpectedly while you were creeping your ex’ Facebook page and your heart rate spiked like a triathlete in the final stretch) and the things that you don’t even know yourself (last month you spent more money on wine than you did on books and clothing combined).
And it knows how to make us do what it wants, because like any good boss, it aligns its needs (to sell stuff) with our own (to fill the aching void in our lives with consumables.).
While it’s unclear just how much free will we have anyway (some science suggests that our brain makes decisions for us before our conscious mind is aware of it), it seems preferable to have decisions taken by our own neural synapses rather than the great porn and bling vending machine that is the wired world.
But let’s face it, we’re not going to sacrifice this kind of convenience, anymore than we stopped using the bags from the grocery store just because we saw a picture of a dying sea turtle belching plastic.
So what can we do?
There’s been a lot of excitement about mindfulness in the corporate world over the last few years, with everyone from professional nerds to jocks jumping on the neuroplasticity brain train all the way to meditation station. And while it’s sometimes oversold as a grand panacea that will keep your employees healthy, cheerful, and efficient for the cost of an hour’s training and a few yoga mats (it won’t), there are tangible benefits that are helpful in making peace with our digital overlords.
Mindfulness isn’t just crossed legs and chanting, although you can do that. Just as important is learning to live in the present moment, to be always aware of what you’re doing, and not dwelling on mistakes of the past or fears of the future. To be thoughtful. To be awake.
And that’s the key to managing all your polite but pushy devices and the algorithms behind them. Ask simple questions: is this really how I would answer an email? Is bingewatching seventeen hours of Peaky Blinders really the best way to spend my Saturday? Do I really need a samurai sword and a year’s worth of freeze-dried lasagna?
All these and many others are reasonable questions that if asked and answered honestly, can help us reap the benefits of technology without becoming simple commodities to be exploited.
The machine is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. We forget that at our peril.