Friday, January 27, 2023

The machines are listening

Earlier this month I had a long conversation with my friend Gawain. We met online as we both collect baseball cards and occasionally we have chats about the sport, collecting cards and the state of the world. During the conversation I showed Gawain the Lego minifigure that another friend, Connor gave me last year.

It's a customised printed figure wearing a retro San Diego Padres uniform. Connor designed it using a machine at a Lego Discovery Centre. Gawain and I discussed how if someone started printing these off there would probably be a decent collector's market for them. He also listened to me patiently talking some more about Lego and how it is increasingly geared towards adult collectors. 

We were chatting on the Messenger app, which is part of Meta, the same company as Facebook and WhatsApp. The next day he sent me these screen grabs for adverts that appeared on his Facebook feed.

We weren't typing messages to each other. We were talking. And the machines were listening. I get ads related to Lego on my Facebook feed all the time, which I always assumed was down to the groups I'm in. But some intelligent system recognised Gawain talking about Lego and offered him some highly specialised services in those ads - the kind of ads that would be of interest to people who are collecting Lego to invest or are thinking of printing designs on minifigures. 

My most popular blog post of 2022 was about how I realised an app I use to track going to football matches was shaping my choices through gamification. Seeing a conversation with a friend turned into marketing algorithms by eavesdropping machines seems another step towards the hybrid interconnected world that Douglas Coupland keeps writing about

Weirdly I was reading a book called The Age of Earthquakes that Douglas Coupland contributed to around the same time as all this happened and this page stood out. It feels like this happened to me!

I know the irony of feeding the online accumulation of a digital version of me (my cloudganger) by blogging all this. The machines will be able to connect the digital dots - if they are truly intelligent then over the next couple of days my social media feeds will be full of reassuring content about how the machines are benign and their intentions are pure. 

In addition to this blog, I write in an old fashioned analog journal most days. Now I'm starting to think a good reason to keep doing that is so some thoughts stay out of reach of the machines.

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