“Only entropy comes easy” – Anton Chekhov
You are no longer a person. I hate to be the bearer of bad news. Scratch that. I love to be the bearer of bad news. Bad news is my thing, to be honest. But the simple fact is your individuality has been subsumed by computational monsters, and the necromantic wizards that control them. Algorithms are evil, but the sad truth is they are powerful. They know you better than you know yourself, and they don’t need to know anything about you personally, much as you like to believe you are a special snowflake with unique wants, needs, and peccadilloes. We like to believe in free will, but our behavior is immensely predictable. We imagine ourselves masters of linguistic nuance, but what you’ve got to say, I’m sorry to report, has largely been said before.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists about 171,476 words currently in use (with roughly 47,000 considered relatively obsolete). Now that may sound like a decent sample to choose from if you want to express the complex thoughts you no doubt imagine are bouncing around your complicated cranium, but a vocabulary of just about 3000 words provides coverage for around 95% of common texts. Do the math. You have 171K words to choose from and in any given written missive, about 1.75% of the total number of available words are used. That’s how computers have gotten so good at natural language processing. They really don’t have to understand that much. In short, they’ve heard your shit already. But this shouldn’t be what concerns you. One can communicate a great deal by simply saying “Screw you!” With all our modern privacy concerns, legislation and seemingly well-intentioned corporate policy (if you believe that I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you) clearly understood by those dark wizards and visionaries who mastered the art of the Internet long before you deleted your Myspace account in favor of Facebook, and intuitively grasped a few basic social-psychological facts (for example, the importance of spectacle, and each and everybody’s need to make their life a universe unto itself, to be the central protagonist in the novel of our lives, rather than the annoying comic relief that gets killed in the second act), it is no wonder we’ve become confused.
The bottom line is, you are not you. I’m not inventing my own Zen koans here. You are simply irrelevant as an individual. You are a point on a graph. A graph that represents people that are statistically very much like you. Individual behavior doesn’t have to be tracked. You ain’t that different from your neighbor. You shop at the same places, read the same websites, and view the same porn (with allowances for the occasional fetish, but even fetishes are predictable). And the sad truth is nobody actually cares about whatever weird thing you’re in to. The algorithms designed by brainy computational linguists, software engineers, and mathematicians are designed only to offer you advertising on things you might buy. Algorithms are very non-judgmental, albeit annoying since they keep serving up rehab ads due to my prodigious consumption of whiskey purchased on credit card.
But back to my original point. Your personal addictions and weirdness are of no concern in a world driven by algorithms. That’s why its so easy to influence elections, predict buying patterns, and offer ads that you’re likely to click on. We suspect all our devices of listening to us. They don’t have to. We, individually are not that important. We match a graph of people very much like ourselves, with patterns of behavior that are very similar. Your race, economic status, gender, and age are pretty solid predictors. And if it didn’t work so well, there wouldn’t be billions of dollars spent each year by people who are fond of their dollars in analyzing such data.
Those beret-wearing post-modernist wonks, usually in graduate school, devoted to Habermas, Althusser, Lyotard, and Foucault in the way that some folks follow sports teams, would say you are wholly encapsulated in ideology, but for the rest of us, that basically translates into not being able to escape from the overwhelming glut of information that surrounds us, prefigures our preferences based on our resemblance to a million others just like us, and then reinforces our worldview/buying habits/dearly held convictions by feeding us more of the same. But it really isn’t about you. You are just a data point. A resident of Flatland. We don’t need to worry about artificial intelligence achieving awareness and deciding we are just too much of a pain in the ass, or better used as batteries. We imagine only a conscious machine could comprehend us. Sorry, you’re largely reducible to a mathematical equation. Super-intelligent computers aren’t necessary to figure out your habits. Nobody needs to read your Facebook profile in depth. A few choice data points and some behavioral tendencies are enough to take you (and the people like you in aggregate) and achieve some sort of social result – be it ad profits, swaying elections, or influencing perspectives on social issues.
All the “do not track” legislation, blocking of cookies, and anonymization of your online activities is largely irrelevant. You match a graph of behaviors. And you are only interesting in the aggregate, not as Bob in West Podunk with a passion for leather and Brahms, rather as a fairly complicate set of demographic and social categories. The reason this is an irreversible trend is because it works. It sells stuff. It influences public opinion. It changes elections. Mostly it sells stuff.
You can’t really do much about this without becoming an electronic hermit, wearing a tinfoil hat, ditching your credit cards, and moving to a small backwoods cabin in Montana. That doesn’t tend to end well. Maybe the New York Times will print your manifesto, but you’ll wind up in Federal prison for the rest of your life. I for one can’t pull off the Unabomber beard. Besides, there are a lot easier ways to screw with the dark arts of machine learning and natural language processing, statistics and graph theory, and behavioral analysis.
So, we don’t need to start a nerd revolution, much as I’ve always dreamed of one. I even made a flag. No. You can’t see it. I don’t even care that much if I’m tracked. I appreciate the 20% discount offers on quality scotch. It’s the principle of the thing. My technical solution is to run a cute little shell script in the background continuously to randomly open websites that I would never visit. How do I know this works? I’ve managed to game the system, and data geek that I am, watched the results. Clearly, I don’t have a need for tampons or pregnancy tests, have little interest in what Midwest neo-Nazis have to say about any issue, and have never cooked a damn thing that that wasn’t microwaveable in my life. Neither do I have the slightest curiosity about K-Pop, or what’s happening in the current popular daytime soap operas. But every time a little ad pops up promoting something that I couldn’t care less about, I smile inside. Sometimes I even click on the ads just to further complicate issues for those mindless algorithms out there sorting me into inappropriate categories.
I happen to have a few programming chops. You don’t need these to enact your own version. Spend a few minutes choosing totally random things that you don’t care about and visit their websites. You’re an 80-year-old veteran with a passion for guns? Make sure you occasionally visit websites related to Teletubbies and Sesame Street. Collectively, we can fight the graph. The individual is nothing. The graph is everything. You want to throw a wrench in the system? Go to websites you would never go to. Click on things that you have no interest in. The algorithms break down when we use the one advantage we have over them. The ability to be unpredictable in new and strange ways. Who knows, you might even find a new and interesting hobby. You might even change your mind about something. Chaos is your friend, or as science writer James Gleick said, “You know, entropy is associated thermodynamically, in systems involving heat, with disorder. And in an analogous way, information is associated with disorder, which seems paradoxical. But when you think about it, a bit of information is a surprise. If you already knew what the message contained, there would be no new information in it”.