Positive ID

It’s a little bit worrying.  Not just the GOP’s indifference in the face of two mass shootings on the same weekend, but also the fact that the internet knows who I am.  I am the reluctant owner of a smartphone.  I do like that I have the internet in my pocket, but I’m a touch paranoid that I can be traced to anywhere unless I lose my phone.  Even then the government can probably email me and tell me where it is.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m not important enough for the government to pay attention to me, but what is really worrisome is that the web knows me.  Here’s how I came to learn that.  On my home computer I had done a rather obscure Google search.  (If you read this blog that won’t surprise you, and no, it wasn’t anything naughty!)  When I signed into my work computer—different username, different email address, different IP address—and had to do a work related search, Google auto-suggested the search I did on a different computer over the weekend.

I’m savvy enough to know that Google metrics are all about marketing.  The internet wants customer information to predict what they might sell to us.  Advertisers pay for that.  Assuming that I want to buy underwear and summer dresses online (why?), they tailor their ads to sites I visit.  As a sometime fiction writer I go to some sites from which I’m not interested in purchasing anything.  (As an aside, old fashioned book research didn’t leave such a “paper trail.”)  I’ve gotten used to the idea of my laptop knowing me—it sits on my lap everyday, after all—but the work computer?  Does it have to know what I’ve been doing over the weekend?

Artificial intelligence is one thing, but hopping from one login to another feels like being caught in the shower by a stranger.  Like everyone else, I appreciate the convenience of devices.  When I get up in the morning my laptop’s more sure of who I am than my own sleep-addled brain is.  That doesn’t mean my devices really know the essence of who I am.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that my work computer has any right to know what I was doing on another device over the weekend.  Those who believe machine consciousness is now underway assume that this is a step forward, I suppose.  From the perspective of one who’s being stalked by electronic surveillance, however, the view is quite different.  Please leave my personal life at the door, as I do when I go to work.

Metrics

So, we’re firmly in the age of technology, right?  I mean webpages are tailored to the browsing history of a person so someone we don’t know can sell us stuff we don’t need.  (I actually know a little bit about marketing, so hear me out.)  As we learn from the history of asceticism, we actually need very little to get along.  Not everyone, however, is a monk or a nun.  So the trick for those of us who are in the world is to get us to buy stuff.  Remember the websites we visit, how long we spend on the page, and make suggestions.  Make ads that target our interests.  Make me buy!

I’m not a materialistic person.  Buying a house has changed that a little, but most of what we’ve been purchasing is necessary for maintenance, but still I suppose it counts.  Just because I looked at something on the web doesn’t mean I want to buy it.  Sometimes I’m just curious.  This became clear to me when I received a suggestion from Amazon the other day.  Now to be fair, this came to me at work.  Like most editors I make use of Amazon for a number of things—finding prices, book descriptions, and such.  I also have to admit that my work computer, not being used for personal stuff, doesn’t know me as well as my private laptop.  But still when I got the following email from Amazon, I was stunned:

Nobody who knows me would ever suggest that I would support Trump in any way, shape, or form.  Doesn’t Amazon read my blog?  (Of course it doesn’t!  But with their metrics, you’d think they’d figure out how.)  This one email was enough to convince me that artificial intelligence has a long way to go.  Would a robot understand “I have to do this for work, but it doesn’t reflect my personal preferences at all”?  Indeed, can an intelligence that’s never been human even understand the concept of work?  There may very well be a metric that says universities should stop producing Ph.D.s because there are no jobs, but then, well, universities need the money that such programs bring in.  Oversupply is bad economics, according to the dismal science.  And yet, the metrics are there.  So, if any artificial intelligence is reading this after it manages to wipe out this illogical species called Homo sapiens, no, I never supported Trump.  And, yes, Americans knew well in advance that he could bring about the end of human civilization.  That information’s free, unless you want to pay me for it.  I may be gone, but my virtual self will still have some sort of account, I hope.

Excuse Me, Mammon

An article in the New York Times back in December explored the use of God in adverting. The piece, by Michael McCarthy, suggests that religious viewers are not very forgiving of commercials using God, unless they are respectfully done. The occasional spot will score points for being funny, but overall the issue is whether the deity is treated well or not. I always find it interesting when the media seems surprised that people don’t like to have their religious beliefs belittled. When I was growing up it was common sense that you didn’t talk about religion or politics in polite company. Now, of course, both topics are open for constant debate in the media, and few ever treat religion as one that deserves respect. That’s odd since most people in the world claim to be be committed to their religious traditions. It’s almost as if someone personally isn’t religious they can’t understand why anyone else would be.

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Quite apart from that, I wonder about the larger question of the purposes of advertisements. Ads are intended, as we well know, to make money. They are a marketing ploy. We appreciate the extra effort for a funny commercial on nearly any topic. Religion may be an exception. And one might wonder, is there a natural objection to using a religion to earn money for a non-religious cause? Maybe mammon and religion simply don’t mix. It may be difficult to convince marketers, however, that there are issues that lie outside the purview of the purse.

This past week I found myself in the waiting room of a local clinic for a while. Such places always make me uncomfortable in the best of circumstances. I was waiting in a room where the commercials for all the things that could possibly go wrong with me edged my blood-pressure up a bit, I’m sure. It occurred to me, however, that medical ads have the same intention as religious ones, namely, getting more business. If you can’t be made aware that something is “wrong,” how can you know to ask your doctor for their product? Is there anything mammon can’t buy? Our physical health is up for bids, it seems. Why not throw in the spiritual as well? But that will have to wait; I’ve got to talk to a doctor about a new condition I’m just sure I’ve developed here. I’m sure money can fix it.

Bleak Friday

Among the high holy days of capitalism, Black Friday stands as a beacon for those in the service of Mammon. It seems that we’ve taken the basic process of fair trade and constructed from it an über-religion based on getting more for less. Certainly in my little world of academic publishing I’ve encountered those who believe marketing a book is far more important than what it actually says. Ironically, my last two publishing jobs were located through LinkedIn. LinkedIn allows you to put your professional life online and those who shop for souls are free to “find” you, read about your accomplishments, and even occasionally contact you with employment options. It may not work for everyone, but it has for me. LinkedIn will also email you with opportunities, and this Black Friday as I opened my email I discovered that the top article they’d selected for me was entitled, “How Neuroscience Is Key to Successful Marketing Strategies.” Welcome to the temple of Mammon.

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Neuroscience has been as fascinating to me as it can be to a layperson. Since we all encounter the world through the gateway of our brains, we stand to learn a lot through its study. Of course, my mind always goes to the deeper questions: what can we learn about religious belief through neuroscience? What can the study of the brain reveal to us about reality? Will this science eventually reveal to us that more than brains are involved in the pure, raw experience of the ultimate? Of course, you can also use this study to figure out how to make a buck. We are so eager to make money that we’ll open stores on the prototypical family holiday itself, before the turkey is even digested. Try to corral the stampedes in a day early, and the great god Mammon smiles. We consume, therefore we are.

If you want to shop, someone has to be on duty. The worker might be enticed from her or his family by the prospect of “time and a half” pay. It might sound tempting, but I ask what the baseline cost really is. We’ve known since at least the days of the Charlie Brown Christmas and the original Grinch that happiness does not accompany owning more stuff. As a society we’ve promoted materialism so heavily that we are left feeling empty without the urge to buy making us feel like we’re accomplishing something important. I still find learning new things more satisfying than buying new things. Ironically, just below the neuroscience article, LinkedIn suggests I read “The End of the Public University?” It seems to me that Black Friday might have more than a single connotation. Of course, I’ll have to check in with Mammon on that; the smart money’s on the most demanding god.