I recently became obsessed with Samantha Irby, not in a stalker way but in a career-goals sorta way, and because of this have found myself endlessly searching to learn more about her. Then one day it dawned on me that I should just buy some of her books 1) to support a cool author and 2) to dive into titles that really could be direct quotes from my actual life (Wow, No Thank You, Meaty (I’m so jealous of this), and maybe my favorite, We are Never Meeting in Real Life). Unlike the ubiquitous book links to Amazon where I’d get free two-day shipping but hate myself for it, the links for purchase on her website go directly to her publisher, Penguin Random House (which, as a publishing conglomerate, incidentally, owns the collective catalogs to every title I think I’ve ever read in my life. If it was another genre of media I’d be screaming ANTI-TRUST but when it’s books, this consolidation feels secure, somehow, like I never need to worry about the selling out of Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie).
I was actually ready to hit “cart” when I noticed the footer of the page showing other titles “inspired by my browsing,” as though with a couple clicks I’d meticulously cultivated a collection of important and relevant pieces to inspire my life. Allow me to share just a few of the titles this Jeeves McAlgorithm put together for me:
- Successful Aging
- Failure to Launch
- The Power of Showing Up
- The Power of Bad
- Building a Life Worth Living
- The Storm Before the Calm
- The Body Reset Diet
Frankly, I’m concerned.
I don’t know which browsing history ol’ Jeevesie is pulling from but this list has given me pause, especially given the contrapuntal Failure to Launch and Successful Aging listed back to back. If I looked only at this list, I’d say I’m a big ol’ mess. How can I be successfully aging and also still building a life worth living? As I continue to be a failure to launch? I’m clearly in the storm before the calm, it would seem. Perhaps a body reset diet would give me more power to show up but then I’d be flirting also, it would appear, with the power of bad, ya know?
Every day I’m fascinated with the ways and the speed with which algorithms present to us a world based solely on our searches. The library filing card system (I know, I’m 1000 years old) or the newer electronic file card systems (that actually often use “electronic” in their names to signfy how cool and new they are…libraries are 50,000 years old) never did this. I could search for Das Capital by Karl Marx and Leslie Nielsen’s Stupid Little Golf Book back to back…nothing would come of it. No questions, no judgement. Today, I just open an email for Thinx (they’re a strategy for successfully aging) and the next YouTube video that plays in the long list of videos I started watching 30 minutes ago has an ad for Thinx that I have never seen before in the 30,000 hours I watched YouTube…last week.
Daily, I get emails from website shopping carts that I abandoned weeks ago, not just telling me that my stuff is still there but now also letting me know the good news that that stuff is now on sale. Just yesterday, I bought a blouse on super sale online and not 30 minutes later I got an email from that store showing me a discount on a pair of pants that had been paired with the blouse I just ordered. C’mon Anne Taylor Loft. I’ve never once searched for faux leather skinny jeans–how dare
your algorithm you. We are all hooked in to vast networks of data, y’all, by just innocently browsing for pee-proof underwear and Arnica gel (okay, maybe the Successful Aging isn’t a bad recommendation). What’s even scarier, though, is that the data is starting to coagulate into proactive suggestions of who we will become,who we should become, who we essentially are. Just a friendly reminder that this is entirely, entirely false. But it’s easy to forget that the electronic feedback we receive unsolicited isn’t real.
How easy is it to just follow these suggestions and not think about whether I actually want these? How simple is it to assume these algorithmic shoppers assistants are here because they want to help me out? I mean, it seems relevant, right? I’m just thanking god that it appears that my WebMD searches aren’t included…although I’m seeing an awful lot of online advertising (mostly on food blogs where I’m searching for “food for one” no less) for antidepressants, so who knows. It depends on whether Mr. Algorithm interprets depression as a symptom of aloneness or obsessive-compulsive searching of unrelated symptoms OR the sum of all of the searched symptoms…OR the sum of all of those conditions put together. The point of AI is to be meta; this exercise proves it’s working.
Look at how complicated this simple act of researching an author that seems cool has become. I’m in a full-on existential exploration right now and the options have become paralyzing, the suggestions now an internal dialogue attempting to make sense of the suggestions as though they mean something substantial about me; as though algorithms are judging me. Others maybe don’t have that reaction: maybe they just accept what they’re given as truth. Few, if any, reject it outright. And that’s what’s scary and consequential.
In times of chaos, distress, instability, yearning, pain and sorrow, distrust, personal insecurity: it’s so easy to lose track of what is real. We say our world, right now, is in this place and we attribute that to Trump, climate change, political and economic instability, existential crises. I’d say all of these are the ends, the effects, of technology run amok. The platform, the medium, has allowed us to distrust our own senses and sensibilities (Jane Austen, it finally happened…), and question whether we have the capacity to know what is real and trust that. It’s bad when we don’t know that the medium is our problem. We have to know we’re fucked when we continue to turn to that medium for “answers” when we know it’s the medium that was our downfall in the first place. Digital Stockholm Syndrome. A toxic relationship. It’s going to take work to get back to the freedom of building and trusting our intuition.
Aaaaannnnddd this is exactly why sociologists can never have nice things. On the other hand, I also 100% prefer to live in the hard truth of reality, even when reality looks like a Wachowski Sisters classic. The simple truth is I just came here to buy a book called Meaty. I end here with an existential crisis. And the likely reality is that I’ll have a Nietzsche ad in my email about 10 minutes from now. The key is knowing that I have control over what that means…and the fact that I really just want to meet Samantha Irby in real life.