Personal expression in the digital age: how machines get between us

Most communications are inept, reminding us that this isn't someone we're talking to, it's something.

kay on the road in central europe

Just a typical day meandering around Central Europe.

Credit: Greg Murdock

I was on an errand to a shop a few towns over from where I live, driving along the network of old farm roads that links these former New England settlements. In what are now the Western Suburbs of Boston, the best spots typically lie along narrow, winding, pot-holed, and many-times-patched roads, where all the big houses, prime land, golf courses and conservation set-asides can be found.

Google Maps kept interrupting my journey with what must be its latest iOS update to tell me that it had found a faster route, and all I had to do to save four minutes was tap "Okay." Three times it asked me before giving up. It wanted to send me down the Interstate and through a strip mall to shorten the distance traveled by a few miles.

Why does it think it’s smarter than me? Is the only criterion length of travel? Isn’t life a journey rather than a destination? Could Google come up with an algorithm for “most aesthetic route?”

'Right' vs. 'best'

The experience reminded me of a time many years ago when I was bicycling through Bavaria on my own with all my kit strapped fore and aft. Lovely roads, quiet farmland, the region was neat and tidy in a way only Germans can come up with. Although the weather was perfect — sunshine, hardly any wind, moderate temperature — the place was almost deserted. As I pedaled past perfectly manicured fields, I saw plenty of cows, but no pigs.   Which was odd because on the menu in the various Gasthäuser I stopped at along the way, there were plenty of pork products but hardly any beef. I later learned that the cows were mostly for milk, and the pigs were in the barns.

An hour or two into this lovely run, I came across a couple walking along the road. They were classic Germans, gorgeous facial lines, lean, fit, gracious. She was blonde. He was dark. I stopped, and we chatted for a while. Two things struck me. When I told them where I was going, the man started instructing me on the fastest way to get there, showing me on the map folded into my front-bag where I ought to go. I had spent some time over breakfast planning my route, and I was pretty clear that I didn’t want to go the way he was suggesting. But in that weirdly German way, he kept insisting that his itinerary was the “right way.” Meanwhile, his partner got inappropriately close to me, touching my hands as they gripped the handlebars, and looking deeply into my eyes in the most disturbing manner. Boundaries, I thought.   These people really don’t know where the lines are.

How does one decide on the best route? Back then (the early 1980s), Michelin had these fantastic maps. Their scale was 1:200,000, and they were amazingly accurate, but drawn with a kind of art that gave the navigator some sense of the terrain.   A dark, cool valley with forested slopes would look kind of inviting. An arid plane appeared barren and bleak. But I couldn’t tell you exactly how they achieved that effect.   It was a combination of the size and windiness of the road, the depiction of rivers, the layout of any towns and other structures along the way, the colors indicating vegetative coverage, the textures indicating geological formations: mountains, ridges, glaciers, escarpments, watersheds.

I would pick my route the day of, based on weather, time of day, and a guess at the terrain, where the good stuff might be. If it was going to be hot, I’d start early to make sure I was in the heights by midday.   On a cool day, I’d move more slowly and take my time in the valleys. When it rained, I’d find a café or bar and wait it out. If the rain were persistent, I’d find a place to stay. Mystery and exploration were part of the experience.

Outsourcing thinking

Fast-forward to now, and we find these gangs of machines all trying to do our thinking for us, making something that should be simple far more complex.

To wit: here’s how Microsoft’s Office 365, the successor to Exchange, handles meeting invites.   Microsoft tries to outsmart its own customers by deciding what time zone they’ll be in when the meeting occurs.   But the company has no way of knowing where the customer will be when the meeting actually takes place. He or she might be in California for that California-based meeting, but he or she might just be calling in from Massachusetts, which is three hours earlier. And maybe the invite came in when the customer was in Chicago and therefore reflects Chicago time. Just let me pick a time zone when I accept the meeting. I know where I’ll be. You can’t be sure.

Everybody is looking for “leverage” these days. No sane business model would leave home without it. And thus, one-to-many communication is the order of the day: the tweet, the post, the self-aggrandizing vacation collage, the send-to list. I find it sad. And dehumanizing. Even as I do it myself. Here.

This type of communication is not designed for humans to “consume.” We’re more the one-on-one, conversational types. When every communication is impersonal, they’re all spam.   Include in that stream of spammy pitches, poor literacy and a general lack of understanding of the subject at hand by strangers who act like acquaintances, and the whole thing is enough to make you scream. They’re all there blaring at you like a wall of trumpets.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is trying to attain the same “leverage” as one-to-many. One algorithm tries to decide what most people are likely to do, rather than figuring out what this particular person is going to do. “Personalization” is an oxymoron. The “-ization” part is what make it impersonal.

So, what can you offer? Nothing. Give me peace and quiet.

Why should I care?

If you’re going to do a work that will be on exhibition, that I may see and admire, then do it well. Craft me a piece of art, something with thought and grace in it. Make me care about its essence, which I understand easily from your exposition. Let me understand why I should like you.

But even then, your need for my brain-space does not supercede my need to keep it for other things.

It makes me want to be ever more artisanal, like I’ll do this one just for you, for you alone.   All these robots are taking the fun out of it.

I’m at an impasse about what to do. I was an early user of computer communications technology, and I thought the magic of being able to contact many people at once was fantastic. I figured out in about 1992 how to make a living from my kitchen table, which sure beat commuting. But the rest of the world caught on, and we created a nightmare. We are spam city.

I still make my living “over the Internet,” whatever that is, and have adapted to changing technologies across the decades, but I want free of it. It’s a ball and chain.

I find myself more sensitive, more likely to cringe these days as I encounter an inept attempt to grab my attention, whether I’m merely a pair of human eyeballs or a member of some more-focused category, like industry analyst.

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