The Third Third

Cursing the Algorithm

I found it fascinating and quite clever, really, when supermarkets installed programs that, when I checked out after buying paper towels and toilet paper or frozen peas, created -- on-the-spot and just for me, personally -- coupons discounting alternative brands of paper towels, toilet paper and frozen peas, presumably for my next visit.  I actually thought about it enough to find fault with the system -- who’s going to buy paper towels and toilet paper that soon after buying them in the first place, and shouldn’t they assume just a little brand loyalty?  I tried to work the system a little, too, foraging for the coupons left behind by customers ahead of me in line that might, in fact, save me money on something I *was* going to buy the “next visit.” It was a little spooky that someone (or something) was paying that much attention to my grocery store habits, but mostly I was intrigued. I’ve actually gotten quite a kick out of Amazon’s tracking my book-buying, too.  I consider them “friendly,” those emails that say, “People like you, who’ve read such-and-such a book, will like this new book on a related topic, which you can pre-order or buy today with just one click.”  I actually worked at screwing up their system, purchasing books for my husband -- all with a theological or lawyerly bent -- along with books for my work -- tomes on aging and related developmental issues with a whole lot of fiction thrown in.  And the random volume someone has told me I simply have to read. MasterCard knows a whole lot about us, too.  It called when we once went to Europe to suggest someone was spending “outside of our normal pattern.”  And my favorite:  it called my sister-in-law who had been piling up the miles, presumably by the tens of thousands, paying for her daughter’s wedding, to question a $39 charge from Sports Authority, because that, clearly, did not fit her pattern either. Then I learned about cookies, those innocently-named imprints my computer leaves wherever I go on the Internet.  (As I understand it, anyway.) They seem to represent an advanced technology that can tell the world, or anyone who cares -- and *everyone* who has something to sell me -- where I’ve been, what I like, maybe what I read, how many clicks I’m willing to make to dig for information, and, presumably, a whole lot more.  For several years now I’ve been telling myself I have nothing to hide (I don’t, really) and that cookies were, therefore, of no never-mind to me.  However, I am no longer sure that’s true. My son tells me there is now technology and programming available to websites that can accomplish what those irritating automated phone systems do with “For ABC, push 1; For DEF, push 2; For XYZ, push 4. . .,” without asking you to make affirmative choices, simply by assessing, by virtue of your virtual identity, who you are and what you are most likely looking to find or do on the site, even what you are most likely to buy.  (Key the Science Fiction scary music.)  I am a woman who *likes* shopping; I don’t want anyone -- or anything -- else making spending decisions for me.  But I also like to think I am a discrete, if not entirely unique individual capable of complex thought and complicated choices, so I really resent the assumption that a machine might “know” me so intimately.  And said resentment morphs quickly into a kind of existential terror:  who am I, really, if I can be reduced to an algorithm?  (I confess, my mathematical education ended slightly before I was introduced to algorithms.  I have no idea what they really are.  I just know that’s the name given to the rapid-fire online information assembling and assessments we’re talking about here.) These algorithms are also at work, I read recently in the [Columbia Journalism Review][1], feeding data to online sources such as Demand Media, which in turn produces “commercial content,” the pabulum that passes for information and sometimes even journalism today on many online sites, including a few legitimate “news” sites chiefly, it seems, because it can be used to sell ads.  This so blurs the already porous line between news and advertising, so debases the profession of journalism, and so undermines the role the press needs to play to sustain a strong, functioning democracy that the only word that comes to mind, again, is terrifying.  Not to mention our own presumed role as passive consumers rather than the informed, even thinking, citizens we need to be. How far we’ve come from a two-bit coupon for toilet paper!  What a slippery slope it is, indeed.  The data is out there -- mine is, anyway.  The horse is out of the barn.  So the question is:  what do we do about it now? Is it possible to harness the power of the programmers to do good as well as to do well?  Can we protect our selves and our souls, if not our privacy?  What do you think? [1]:
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