What do I mean when I say the internet is reading my mind? I don’t mean simply that it collects my data and observes patterns and interacts with me by reconfiguring that data in ways designed to engage me… I’m also not talking about my awareness that Instagram is listening, that even when my microphone is “off” or my Instagram account disabled, I know other apps are listening, or my phone itself is listening, or such now-standard input-output cross-platform fence-jumping. I’m not even talking about how my phone is “looking” at things I see in the world… 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.
On Friday, after my husband got assaulted, we spent hours searching how to wash off pepper spray (and then cleaning up). Finally after he’d taken like five showers we lay down to decompress and watch some TV. I’m bad at working the smart TV so it just randomly turns on on some Samsung channel despite my attempts to leave it on something inoffensive; a billiards tournament came on (something we’ve never watched). He left it going while I got ready, and two ads repeated: for laundry detergent and personal injury lawyers. Logically, we know it was a coincidence, but humans are so good at seeing patterns and causality — and that instinct is reinforced when sometimes it *is* true that the Internet is spying on you.
Last year, his brother tried to prove the Internet was listening by talking about bird cages and waiting to see if it showed him ads for bird cages (it didn’t). The opaque way the Internet works amplifies paranoia. Our self-driven Internet usage, demographic targeting, and personalized advertising combine with our self-centeredness, the human affinity for stories, and our biases to amplify the patterns we do see and disregard all the ads that *weren’t* targeted to us. Part of the creepiness of how the Internet seems to know us too well is that we really are similar in many ways to other people — that we can be profiled.
See also: Embracing authoritarianism to keep power and quash change
But the point is it’s not the timeline—it’s that I am tagged, you are tagged, the news stories and ads are all tagged, they deliver unto you the news stories and ads designed for you. It’s just advanced technology, it’s not reading your mind.
There’s some echo here with seeing sentience in a glorified autocomplete AI.
I’ve been thinking this week about magic — my husband told me about Penn and Teller doing a disappearing trick where they let the audience volunteer start recording on their phone before putting it in the box for the trick. They are so confident in their performance that they understand the real magic for the audience is in the craft, the execution, and it won’t matter if the audience understands how it’s done later. That it might, in fact, increase appreciation for their stagecraft. They don’t want to fool audiences into thinking any of the tricks they’re doing are actually magic. Another friend told me about a trick (of theirs?) where they performed the classic “cut the woman in half” trick first traditionally, then repeated it with clear boxes so the audience could see what’s happening. There is transparency into what they are doing — something that we lack for LLMs, which makes us want to explain what we don’t understand as a sign that the model understands.
So what I’m experiencing is only advertising, or coincidence, or it’s just frequency illusion, or synchrony. If there is order to the system, but the order is too complex for you to understand it, your experience will be mostly of disorder studded with coincidence and frequency illusion, and you will have no ability to say whether the system is disordered or too complex to understand. They become synonymous and meaningless.
The Internet becomes part of us, the way tools become an extension of ourselves, and the tool changes the user:
Even if my phone is off, is elsewhere, even if my computer is in a different country, the internet is there wherever I am, because it’s in me now. I’m talking about the lingering psychic, psychological, and physiological connection that I can no longer shut off, that has changed my mind.
We create our own reality, and I mean that not as a cheap theory of omnipotence but as an untestable theory of attention. Which is another way of saying we see what we look at, with whatever tools we have, and now we have the internet.
On generative AI, trained on the Internet:
I don’t worry about being put out of a job; I worry about being put out of an identity, because it is through my writing that I have investigated and represented my experiences, and thereby actualized my self… But paying attention to me, which is what the internet does continuously, with almost no boundaries, may someday make the internet the writer that I am, too.
I could acknowledge my conflation of the internet and A.I. and social media and the smartphone.
I actually like that she’s blending these, because we treat them as if they are essentially the same: social media is the Internet, generative AI embodies the Internet, smartphones connect us to the Internet. And the Internet, in the end, is all of us, connected:
…asking the internet is asking all the people who have ever lived plus the endless expansion and iteration of their ideas…
(Via Danah Abdulla at The Pessoptimist)