Admittedly bored, I was recently listening to a podcast about social media that concerned me even more than usual. I am, by now, fairly accustomed to the irritating opinions that some people post, and have heard rumours about the inevitable abusive trolling that follows. I assumed I was relatively immune from that, however, given that I try not to be unduly provocative online -or off, for that matter. But, of course, provocation is a moving target nowadays.
Still, any people who choose to object to my occasional posts of the trail runs I have attempted and the resulting stumbles on the leaf-hidden obstacles to which I have succumbed, must be terminally bored. And anyway, I’m already rather long in the tooth, so any other material the trolls might crave is in cursive and unlikely to be easily retrievable -unless, of course, they have access to my ancient, yellowing letters home from university; even then, assuming my mother didn’t burn them, I doubt if they could read my writing.
But back to the digital age; the cognitive scientist on the podcast assured her listeners that the rapidly emerging surveillance capitalism, as she called it, was clever. The social media giants, she said, were selling our personal information -including click-habits and buying preferences- to ‘attention merchants’ and sundry unseen buyers, so our subliminal or even subconscious habits were in their hands. Desires, and preferences were inferred from our mindless online activities, and what we once might have considered serendipitous suggestions now appear on our screens with worryingly predictable regularity. For some, I suppose, that is helpful, but for the rest of us, it is deeply unsettling. What else do they know that they are not revealing? Not yet using…? Should I expect some form of retributive trolling or maybe a handy advertisement for my decision to shop for socks online? How about tissue paper -does that reveal something malignant about me? I mean we’re in a pandemic, eh? I’m trying to avoid crowds.
Of course, there is always the possibility that we are over-estimating their abilities; a few clever age-specific algorithms, don’t necessarily plumb the depths of our years -otherwise we’d be enlisting their acumen to anticipate and manage the changing needs of our dementing elders. Or maybe it’s already happening and that’s who those non-serendipitous next-day ads are targeting.
Actually no… I suspect the premise of our needs predates even AI logic. None of the programmers reading my online trail, likely blossomed in prediluvian Winnipeg, so I doubt that any of them know much about the long-term effects of piano lessons keeping the nerdier among us from weekend pickup baseball games; or why merely being allowed to sprinkle sugar on an otherwise inedible cranberry pie for dessert was just not worth the effort of first having to pick through some over-cooked roast beef co-mingled with canned spinach on the plate for dinner. Or, how about having to go to bed early for breaking windows in the abandoned house at the end of the block three streets away? No algorithm could possibly handle those with any hope of predictive ability.
All of these stochastic life-events have an effect on the randomness with which we choose what to click on in later life. We old people are not even likely to be on the net, let alone trust a mouse-click to deliver anything other than an error message. As our neurons entangle and forget where they’re supposed to go, our predictability follows suit.
And yet those attention merchants still assume they’ve harnessed our existential simplicity and innocently mistaken mouse clicks as proof of concept. Let me tell you just how good they are.
The other day I received a message from a drugstore I had been known to frequent in the preCovid days. ‘You have been selected,’ it shouted in a large, brightly coloured font. And it wasn’t about to let me delete it without a fight.
Guessing, no doubt, that I would be curious about why and for what I had been singled out, it displayed a huge, red flashing arrow at the bottom saying ‘Let’s get started then…’ I was surprised at their grammatical wisdom of employing an ellipsis to suggest a yet to be completed action. I’d like to think it was the ellipsis and not greed that led me to click, but whatever…
And when I did, I was presented with a series of questions to answer -each one no doubt designed to select a reward appropriate to my needs. That seemed simple enough, and nothing like a credit card number, or driver’s licence ID was among them, so I played along.
‘What do you usually buy in our pharmacy?’ it asked, and gave me a list of choices. I picked ‘prescription medications’ as a safe click.
Then it wanted to know if I did this ‘frequently, occasionally, or just once’. Being staunchly middle-of-the-road, I chose ‘occasionally’ -I figured it wouldn’t label me as having any sort of chronic, debilitating condition, or anything.
‘How much do you usually spend at each visit?’ Ahaa -they’re looking for expensive medications, and likely slotting me into both an income and important disease bracket. The choices given were revealing: ‘<$10, <$20, >$20?’ I remembered buying some cough drops there a few months ago, so I clicked ‘<$10’.
Finally, I got to the two most important, and probably definitive questions: ‘male, female, or prefer not to say?’ Actually I preferred not to say, but I didn’t want to end up with a rainbow scarf, or Brute aftershave, so I clicked male -even though, in truth, I’ve always liked rainbow scarves. Anyway I figured I had to make a choice, and so I did.
The last question on their inventory I could tell was decisive: my age. I’m quite proud of my age, actually, but from the choices offered, I could sense they were after a different acronym than the one of which I was an obligatory member -one of those Gen… things whose ages I can never figure out. But you have to be honest, if you want to steer the algorithm in the correct direction, right?
I wanted an appropriate gift -after all I had been selected– so I clicked on >65. No sense winning a PlayStation, even though I imagine I’m also too old for a Gameboy, so I clicked on ‘Continue’ and awaited my reward with something less than a frisson of anticipation.
The results, given my cerebrally selected answers to their searching questions, were, well, disappointing. I was given four obviously inexpensive and carefully selected choices: The first two were nicely bottled face creams that were shown being applied by two beautiful 20 year old women to their own, decidedly female and wrinkleless faces; the third was something to do with an, older man with a difficult to categorize coloured pill in his hand, gazing fondly at a woman in the distance. It looked a bit unsavoury, and anyway I wasn’t sure I wanted any vitamin pills -I always have trouble swallowing them. The fourth was equally uncompelling: some sort of hair colouring to disguise ‘that tell-tale grey’ it said under the picture of a too-black-haired man with a comb-over in an undershirt in the process of shaving some obviously unblack stubble off a cheek.
Uhmm, I immediately deleted my responses, mildly amused that I had been click-baited into the chasm. The next day, though, there was another assurance that I have been selected! It was obviously a back-up bot canvassing me again in the unlikely event I’d thought the last offer over and had decided I wanted to look at the choices again. Now, of course I was curious. Had they realized they’d made a mistake in the rewards for someone like me? I decided on a further try.
For some reason, however, my antiviral system wouldn’t let me open anything after I clicked on the ‘Let’s get started, then…’ It informed me that it was unsafe… More like ‘not worth it’ if you ask me. Maybe they’ve finally improved the antiviral algorithm at least.