Artwork by Sandi Falconer
Dear Algorithm that’s Tracking My Life: sometimes you get things wrong
Published in The Globe and Mail, April 2, 2019
Things were different when I first met you. You had my back. I remember the first time you mapped a transit route for me. That was hot. Never again would I get lost or have to ask for directions. You made my life easier and I trusted you. So when you asked to see my phone’s contacts, use my microphone or my camera, I agreed. Friends share. Things were going really well, but at some point you changed, and I can’t keep it bottled in anymore. I have to let you know how I feel.
Last night, I woke up from a nightmare, talking to myself, only to find you next to me, listening from my Amazon Echo. You probably heard me in my sleep. My subliminal thoughts turned into recorded snippets, now somewhere in the cloud. Unable to fall back asleep, I picked up my phone and began scrolling through my Instagram feed. “It was just a bad dream,” I told myself, comforted by the images on my screen. That’s when I realized I had dreamed of you.
You’ve seen every social media post, every Google search. You’ve seen exactly who I am. I know, you’re just following my lead, learning along the way. It’s your job. But you know me too well. You’ve studied me carefully, at my best and at my worst. You’re always there. More than anyone, you know the weirdest, darkest facets of my being. For that I’m ashamed, with mostly myself to blame.
Sure, I let you in. But this isn’t what I envisioned when I met you. I’m your human subject, naked and vanishingly small beneath the weight of all the clicks, likes, stars, views and what have you. No matter how much data I give, you want more. No matter how much I open up, I can’t help but to feel like, to you, I’m just another package of averages, a bundle of stats, at my best when I’m endlessly browsing. I feel pigeonholed, inescapably reduced to another twentysomething-year-old male.
I mean, it’s not all bad. I have to admit, it’s a relief sometimes to be recognized. In junior high my crush would give me MP3 CD mixtapes. I’d rip the songs from the CD and load them onto my iPod. That was all I’d listen to in the morning on the bus. The Spotify playlists you compile for me remind me of those precious mixtapes. They’re sweet, sometimes perfectly curated to my mood. In an odd way, your opaque surveillance guarantees that someone, at least, bothers to know me. It’s not that your predictive analytics are always accurate. (Believe me, they’re not.) It’s that you’re trying, and at a minimum you offer a version of myself that I can reject and play against.
But for all my self-confidence, I’ve lost sight of what I’m looking for. I’m no longer making my own choices. I’m waiting for you – depending on you – to make them for me. You know I seek order and safety, and so, no matter where I go, you inconspicuously repeat: “If you like this, you might also like this.” By trying to show me what I care about you’ve infiltrated the way I think about myself, my tastes, my values and my relationships. Why should you be informing fundamental decisions about my life? Do I still have views of my own? Are you shaping me as much as I’m shaping you?
The people who made you make it seem like more of you is inherently better. They say the change is inevitable, and that with more data comes greater accuracy and truth – and for a long time I believed them. You began in good faith: You were supposed to improve my “user experience”; you were meant to assist me, maybe even improve me along the way. But none of that happened. What I want doesn’t seem to matter to you. Your loyalty lies with the people who made you and their loyalty lies with profit. The more this goes on, the less I feel like you have my back. You don’t care about my well-being. Your ambition is never-ending and deeply flawed.
The honeymoon phase is over. I want anything but what you offer. I crave the unpredictability of the real world. Surrendering myself to any element of chance has become so much more satisfying. And as clichéd as it is, the idea that the best things in life are unquantifiable seems more meaningful than ever. Why has escaping you become so desirable at the very moment when it’s become almost impossible?
“Deal with it because it isn’t going away,” someone said about you. Is that really my only option? Is this just the way things are now? But maybe that person is right: deal with it. Maybe the best way to deal with you is to opt out, to ignore you and listen once again to the people around me, or better yet, my own gut. My online world – and my real world – shouldn’t be shaped by a force beyond my control, regardless of whether you stay or go away. I know you want my attention. Prove to me that you deserve it.
This is how I feel, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. I thought I should tell you. But hey, knowing you, this will probably just be processed as more data.