Friday, March 02, 2012

Don't follow me, I'm lost


Alchemy by Pants

In a state of controlled terror, I have followed the wise counsel of the smart and justifiably paranoid seers of this world and deleted my Google history before it was set in, er, vapour? I also hit the button that invited me to 'pause history', for whatever that's worth. Presumably, like Kubrick's HAL, Googledroids can very easily override their don't-be-evil chip and appropriate my data anyway. I'm sure they could find some greater good/god to cite as justification, and its name would probably begin with a P.

They say that if you're not paying for the product then you are the product. If that's the case, then I'm a bottom-dollar toilet brush. There's no algorithm yet invented that could create a credible profile of my life from electronic records. And that's actually really worrying because that algorithm will try, like HAL, to 'understand'. And, when it doesn't understand, it will simply make shit up.

Algorithms are not unlike people in that they are designed to answer questions. The more accurate the information they are given, they more likely they are to be able to use their considerable reasoning capacity effectively. But I don't want to give these hypothetical algorithms information that might enable them to identikit me, no matter how accurate a picture they might form. Remember Tom Cruise legging it through a mall in Minority Report only to be the target of personalised marketing? Who needs that when you're trying to put the world to rights?

Unlike humans, algorithms can't discern when you're being serious and when you're joking. If, in the future, we're to be defined by our online profiles, then what happens to those of us who only feel like updating our Facebook when we've had a skinful or fictionalise our online diaries because it would be too awful to write the truth?* What worries me is that if algorithms are unable to create a complete picture of me at random, then do I become an outcast by default? Dickens would have loved that scenario.

I give very little of my true self to 'the cloud' - a real entity that sounds more like a Dr Who villain every day. I only shop online if there is no other choice. I certainly don't bank online and I get cash out for all my perishables. I don't want some doctor down the line refusing me treatment because I ate too many lentils.

Being human is defined by the possession of an inner life. To relinquish the rights to that inner life would be to voluntarily emigrate to a kind of mental North Korea. It would be a desolate place distinguished by a perpetual famine of imagination, leading to intellectual starvation. But, by choosing to reveal a false or incomplete picture of myself, do I invite condemnation? Am I a liar? In the future, will everyone who writes gratuitous fiction be a liar? Will the occasional deployment of a metaphor single one out as mad? Lonely as a cloud? - whoever heard of such a thing! To Bedlam with that Wordsworth of a miscreant.

I am a bit sensitive about this sort of thing because I have recently been the victim of a disfigured personal profile. An unflattering judgement has been made about me in an official record which is based on completely false information. The 'information' which supposedly led to this judgement did not come from any declaration on my part but from snippets that were first misheard and then fed through a Chinese Whisperizer to come up with something that sounds, frankly, mad. And then it was re-framed to appear that these mad utterances had come from me. Fortunately, this misinformation is easily discredited. But, it has been stated. And damage has been done. It is a very Joseph K moment and I'm afraid we're all going to be experiencing more of them.

It used to be that we valued our freedom and the privacy on which it depends above all else. If you don't think it's such a big deal, then go ask someone who grew up in the GDR. It's one thing to choose to reveal yourself in all your gory glory, but quite another to have someone else make that decision for you, and, to fill in the gaps with liberal deployment of their own prejudices. And how far are we from a point at which a prospective employer who fails to find an online presence for a candidate assumes that he/she has something to hide? Surely such a situation is beyond any thinking person's pale. I hope I never see the day when people become slaves to rogue algorithms serving some equation bent on world domination.

Word to the wise - get off the bus, ain't no one driving.

*Does not apply here at Seat of Pants where we don't do Facebook and life is permanent idyll - Barney, more vodkamisu. Quick as you like. There's a good fellow...