The Internet is Not the Tool. I Am the Tool
April 22, 2023 11:58 AM   Subscribe

At all times, I understand that the internet is using data I somehow gave it, and that those processes and technologies are now too complex for me to track. But it feels aggressive to me, in the way it would feel aggressive if suddenly every kind of advertisement everywhere you went in the world was designed only for you. When I say the new situation feels aggressive, I am anthropomorphizing the internet, but in theory the internet is a web of anthros, so that statement might be nonsensical. But is the internet the people? Or is it everything the people see and hear and know and make up, without the people? from You Have a New Memory by Merritt Tierce [Slate; ungated]
posted by chavenet (9 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I've worked with computers since my 20's, but the World Wide Web didn't show up until I was in my 30s and I didn't get a smart phone until I was almost 50. So I absolutely regard the phone as a tool and a very useful one for all its shortcomings, but I'm not utterly beholden to it, it's not the center of my life and I know how to function without it if necessary.

I often wonder whether the phenomenon* in the article, of being consumed by one's phone and online life - of being "in a relationship" with it - is mostly or only prevalent among people who grew up with the internet, as opposed to those who reached adulthood before the internet was around.

*I initially accidentally typed phoneomenon, so either my brain outran my fingers or I'm not as immune as I thought...
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:35 PM on April 22 [3 favorites]

I have worked with the Internet in firehose form for my entire adult life. My first real job at age 17 was at an ISP. For twenty years in Hollywood, I increasingly integrated the Internet in my non-networking jobs until I became all-network all the time. Today I work as a remote network engineer, troubleshooting IXP and KVM and BGP and OSPF and other MLAs with a healthy dose of KPI and infosec throughout the Southeast.

Personally, I absolutely would have met my now-ex-wife without the Internet, but we would not have lasted as long as we did without it. I wouldn’t have met the person who got me started on crystal meth without the Internet, I wouldn’t have dug myself into that addiction so deeply and quickly without pro-meth social media on the Internet, and I wouldn’t have gained my peculiar infosec foundational beliefs and skills without being spun out of my mind for a full year on a buggy, darkly-patterned, inherently-insecure Internet tasked to sell a pandemic lockdown as only a minor nuisance.

Maybe people in prior centuries felt this way about literacy, at least to a lesser extent. I won’t speculate about that. I do think the pendulum is swinging very quickly back toward people preferring to be online less. If today my phone happened to be immersed in salty, brackish water, I wouldn’t immediately replace it, that’s for sure. (But I already have a backup iPhone ready to go…)
posted by infinitewindow at 7:22 PM on April 22 [4 favorites]

Not quite what the article meant exactly with "I am the tool." Or maybe exactly what they meant. But it is eerily similar to several trends we are seeing.

So in the 1980s we built a state of the art warehouse, with picking cranes, you would input the parts you wanted to pick and the crane would move to the right location containing them. The crane was mounted on rails between narrow racks three stories tall and the operator just sat in the crane and picked the parts as the crane moved to each location in turn.

Each human operator could pick 100 parts per day, for example. The human supervisor would make decisions over who picked what and in what order and where stock got rotated and stored. Machines did most of the manual work.

Fast forward to our 2020 state of the art warehouse. No more cranes, human operators move on foot between levels, pick rates per operator are halved, say down to 50 parts per day. But we hire way more of them to make up for it. The computer decides who picks what, when, and where stock is stored and rotated. The computer gives its orders to the human operators via wireless headsets.

From humans telling machines where to go, now machines tell humans where to go. It's cheaper and more efficient that way. Machines do better at thinking, and humans are their hands and legs. In the past the crane could break down. Today you just hire more from an endless pool of casual labor, minimal training required, just listen to the headset and obey.

I think that's what the author meant to say -
was she really the one fixing her headlight? Or was she just the tool in meatspace, like our warehouse operators today?
posted by xdvesper at 7:52 PM on April 22 [6 favorites]

When the author fixed her headlight, she used the internet to gather the information she needed to make the desired outcome happen. She used the internet as a tool.

Today, the internet collectively gathers the information about us that it needs to cause the sale of ad space and, ultimately, yoga pants. The internet is using us as a tool, or, at best, we are cogs in its machine.

And even if that feeling is partially the result of common cognitive mistakes like Baader–Meinhof or coincidence bias, that feeling is a real, disorienting experience.

And while the extent to which the internet can use you may be a matter for discussion, there is no longer any serious question that the internet powers that be wish to use you in this way. They absolutely do. Of course they do. The eeriest and most upsetting explanation isn't a ghost story, it is perfectly plausible.

I've had friends -- smart, techie friends who should know better -- who harbored suspicions that their online ads were moderated by conversation they'd had within earshot of their switched-off smartphones. I think one underappreciated aspect of coincidence bias is simply that we are simply exposed to an unbelievable tide of advertising, in meat space and online. Eerie coincidences are bound to happen every day if we keep our eyes open. When we notice one, it's almost impossible to say, in a vacuum, whether this spooky coincidence that just so happens to serve the interests of the internet capitalists was engineered or not.
posted by Western Infidels at 8:40 AM on April 23 [4 favorites]

I find descriptions of these experiences--coincidences or no--fascinating, because it's never, to my knowledge, happened to me outside of e.g. Googling "Nurtec side effects" and getting ads for Nurtec. I've never been doing or talking about something in real life and suddenly gotten a bunch of ads for it on the internet. And I'm not someone who goes particularly out of my way to avoid being tracked, though I do use uBlockOrigin on my PC (but not on my phone, which accounts for about 50% of my internet use).

I've been on the internet for hours a day since I was 14, and have had a Facebook account all that time. Surely there must be reams of data on me? Yet in general I've never gotten ads relevant to me, except for about two months a few years ago when Facebook figured out (after a decade of data on this being my special interest, including linking my Goodreads account) I liked fantasy novels and showed me a bunch of ads for those. Which I clicked on and then cheerfully added to my list of things to get from the library until I suppose Facebook gave up because I wasn't buying anything.

It's been back to sports, reality TV, and moving companies since then. And the occasional highly religious ad (not even ragebait, which I would understand, it's like "the entire Bible on microfilm on a necklace" which does slap conceptually but which I am absolutely not the target audience for). I'm sure people do have experiences like the one described in the article, but I have no idea what they're doing differently from me. Unless the fact that I purchase so little skews the data--if the fact that I haven't bought any of the things I actually have interest in makes them throw spaghetti at the wall in hopes I'll buy SOMETHING?

The fact that this is all such a black box is of course the entire problem.
posted by brook horse at 10:53 AM on April 23 [6 favorites]

The topic of advertising brings up an interesting point.

One of the reasons I'm so comfortable and not emotionally invested in internet/phones/computers is that since I hate hate hate advertising of any sort and always have (going back to long before the internet), I'm willing to put effort into avoiding it as much as I can. I've got ad and tracking blockers and such on all my devices, I don't even answer the phone if I don't recognize the caller's number. I don't assume that those efforts mean corporations have nothing on me, but it does mean that I'm utterly oblivious to their marketing efforts as I go on my merry digital way. That makes the internet a much better, cleaner experience for me and I don't feel somehow pressured/just a cog every moment I'm online. (Not bragging, by the way, just describing my experience in the context of this article.)
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:39 AM on April 23 [3 favorites]

I mean on the one hand Facebook has not figured out that I don't need special pouches in my underwear to store my testicles because I don't in fact have testicles

on the other hand... a friend of mine that I tabletop with came to stay for the weekend & when she arrived she gave me these three little toy raccoons, because my warlock frequently summons three raccoons (it's an urban campaign, I super digress)

anyway she handed them to me explaining that they were actually cat toys, I thanked her & put them on a shelf

couple days later, Facebook serves me an ad for this exact set of three raccoon cat toys

I do not have a cat, I never have had a cat, I don't search for cat toys or people toys or raccoon-related objects, I don't normally get served ads like this (usually it's the ball pouch underwear, straight up, I don't even wear non-ball-pouch underwear now that I'm thinking about it*)

it seems less likely that this is overactive pattern-matching on my end than that the Facebook advertising algorithm is pulling from the purchase history of people whose phones are near my phone

like a similar thing happened where I went from getting zero soda ads at all (I rarely buy soda) to specifically getting ads for Diet Coke with mango after I said, in the vicinity of my partner's phone but not mine which was home charging, "Oh shit they got Diet Coke with mango now? That actually sounds kinda good," or something equally conversationally scintillating

I posted about it & a guy I know who works at Google came in & did the whole "this is overactive pattern-matching, it's just that Coke is pushing this stuff hard, if you actually understood how anything worked blah blah" & I'm like BRUH, I never got soda ads before, I have not purchased a Diet Coke on purpose for two decades, there are like five new flavors & I am specifically getting ads for the mango?

like I don't think I'm being overly paranoid here, I think it's actually the simplest explanation that his phone was listening & served me the ad cause our phones are frequently near each other, it'd actually be really weird if the algorithm otherwise suddenly decided I might maybe want a Diet Coke with specifically mango

anyway this essay was really good & relatable I thought, having read it on my phone in bed right after waking up

* shit actually I forgot I bought taquito boyfriend some Faraday cage underpants like five years ago, at least they'll protect me from getting ads for whatever his balls are Googling
posted by taquito sunrise at 1:35 PM on April 23 [3 favorites]

The other people's phones thing is definitely real; Facebook will use location data to suggest friends based on who you've been nearby recently. That's what further makes this so difficult to understand--you have to account for the behavior of anyone whose phone you've been near too. If, for example, your partner Googled Diet Coke with mango after that conversation, the algorithm might serve them ads for Diet Coke with mango. Then because you spend a lot of time with them, it's like, "Well, you associate with someone who's interested in Diet Coke with mango, so maybe you would like it too." Or potentially if they mentioned it to someone else, who then looked it up, and the algorithm serves ads to people within x number of connections to the source... who knows.

I have no idea if this is true of your specific situation, but in a lot of these situations I do wonder about the behavior of the other people involved and how much that is responsible for these spooky ads. I mean, it's still absolutely shitty and creepy, but can still be possible without the phone actually listening to audio.
posted by brook horse at 2:01 PM on April 23 [5 favorites]

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