This is part 3 of an ongoing series about the Internet. Previously, I explored the positive role that social media can play in modern life and bemoaned how e-commerce has bastardized the art of writing. I don’t have future posts planned for this series, but stay tuned several years from now for my Silicon Valley tell-all, working title The Emperor Has No Track Jacket.
A few weeks back Twitter served me a Netflix ad promoting the new season of “Stranger Things.” I wondered briefly, as I often do, whether what feels like algorithmic ad targeting is actually just the result of a chip having been surreptitiously implanted in my eyeball at my last eye appointment. (You know, that thing where they touch your eyeball with a laser? That cannot possibly be medically necessary. It’s obviously The Man.)
How else would Twitter have known that just the night before, I watched “Stranger Things” for the first time? I made my boyfriend turn it off after one episode because I’m afraid of the paranormal and also because now I understand why my best friend keeps telling me to be Eleven for Halloween and I can’t decide whether to be offended or not, but that’s beside the point. We were using his Netflix account, so I couldn’t possibly have left a digital footprint. I don’t even have my own Netflix account, not because I’m an overgrown child who still uses her parents’ credentials but because… well, that’s beside the point.
What does it mean to be so predictable that an algorithm can guess what I was watching last night? As a teenager I struggled a great deal with the notion that I could be reduced to a set of numbers. I felt both unprepared for the promising future that my numbers implied and constrained to the kind of future that could be promised by numbers. (You can only imagine the durm und strang had I gotten an actually good SAT score!) I find it incredibly frustrating today that after finally having broken out of the cycle of numbers that is secondary education, I can somehow once again be described by data. I was under the impression that I contained multitudes. And I do, I suppose, but measured in a metric that translates directly to cash.
Algorithms can, I suppose, know both who I am and what I mean, more so than even I myself do. I trust them to tell me what to watch next — or at least I would if I watched TV, which I still don’t, although I did enjoy the first season of “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” — and what music I might enjoy. It’s fashionable to wisecrack about how your casual Google searches turn into targeted ads on your Facebook feed and good practice to use an incognito window when you’re trying to figure out if, say, pregnancy tests expire. I’m not usually a nihilist, but I get a kick out of Googling everything from my own profile just to fuck with the ad targeting algorithms. No, I’m not interested in buying a tiny house, Google, I just want to read a bunch of schadenfreude-inducing horror stories about how many people who buy them get divorced within ten months of moving in. Take that!
It’s actually pretty freaky, though, that I can post an Instagram story from a fancy restaurant one day and get an ad for Louis Vuitton the next. It makes me ask myself whether I should be shopping at Louis Vuitton if I’m going to fancy restaurants now, as if I should trust the signals of my behavior that inform how algorithms treat me as guideposts for what I should do next, too. (You’d think Instagram would recognize that my single visit to a Michelin-starred restaurant was an anomaly, given that it was bookended by visits to a dive bar that hands out free pizzas with your beer and evidence of my sad attempts at Blue Apron, but the singularity isn’t here yet.)
I am reminded of learning about symbolism in high school. I was convinced for a while that it was a conspiracy of my high school teachers to find something interesting to say about The Scarlet Letter, that surely Nathaniel Hawthorne was simply describing the Bostonian flora. You can’t possibly claim to know definitively what a dead man meant to say, I would grumble to myself as I dutifully typed out essays that I trusted would get me the As I needed to maintain the perfect GPA that was the hallmark of my presence here on Earth.
It didn’t occur to me to wonder what I was working toward beyond that number and it’s only in the last year or two that I’ve realized how much numbers crippled me when I was younger. Since the election I’ve been reading intensely, first as a means of proving myself right and lately as a means of understanding why it doesn’t matter whether I’m right or not. I aced everything in high school, so I believed that I’d learned everything, but the world and its systems are at last revealing themselves to me as too complex to be distilled down to answers on a multiple-choice exam.
Though high school prepared me poorly for critical learning, it prepared me well to navigate today’s Internet, which demands precision. I feel constantly anxious to prove myself with facts, as though my thoughts are worthless without data behind them. It’s the corollary to how I feel when presented with a targeted ad: should I just give up and buy some Allbirds since obviously I’m supposed to be wearing them given how frequently I am in Palo Alto? Does the fact that I think they look like stupid slippers mean nothing if all of my behavior signifies that I’m the kind of person who should buy them?
In essence it’s the same problem I have with content marketing: the notion that all you need to thrive is a playbook. Get the grades, get the degree, get the job, and happiness will follow. Dangle some keywords in front of people, context be damned, and watch them flock to your product. Let formulae tell you what to do and never make a bad choice again.
But the cybernetic approach to everything saps the power of human subjectivity and free will. I used to shop impulsively. I bought clothes because they were soft and books because they were on sale. Now I follow fashion and check out the ebooks that my library recommends to me. I wonder if I’d live more impulsively if I didn’t have a constant ticker of advertisements and my friends’ experiences and fucking sponsored posts following me around. I booked my first real international vacation — Japan — because in 2013 I picked up Kafka on the Shore from my parents’ bookshelf and it transported me to a world that I knew I had to see to believe. (I was disappointed to learn that the talking cats were a fictional device, not a cultural difference.) I don’t feel quite as inspired to follow flights of fancy as I did just a few years ago. I’m not sure whether that’s because I’m growing older or because technology is eating away at my human subjectivity.
Data — the systematic recording of facts in forms that can be made useful — is immensely useful. Machine learning is, too. I haven’t worked at a certain “Big Data” “unicorn” for five and a half years because I really like track jackets. Used well, data and technology will improve the way we live. I believe in their power, but I also believe in creativity. I believe the best art is art that responds to context, not trends. I believe in the power of context to make art meaningful and I believe in the power of art to mine meaning from context. I struggle to reconcile my desire to live impulsively with how easy it is to select a book from the curated list that the eBooks app shares with me. I struggle with how violated I feel when an algorithm tells me that it knows what I was watching on the couch with my boyfriend last night.
At the end of the day, I am well aware that connectedness and convenience aren’t free. I love social media, I love the ease of living in a technologically advanced society, and I mostly feel happy to subsidize it with my data, not my money. It’s sort of like the calculus I use to justify buying an extra pair of pants on ASOS to qualify for free shipping even though the pants are ultimately more expensive than the shipping would have been. Only instead of pants, I get a debilitating spiral into questioning whether I am still a human with free will or just a pair of eyes that should be watching “Stranger Things” attached to a body that should be wearing Allbirds powered by a mind that couldn’t possibly have voted for anybody but Hillary* and fueled, probably, by Blue Bottle.
* I obviously voted for Hillary. Come on, I’m not watching Infowars.