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By Ron Scopelliti
Hey Siri, are you listening?
There’s been a lot of potential for paranoia in my life. I grew up during the Cold War with the ever-looming threat of nuclear annihilation, which I was constantly reminded of by the “fallout shelter” signs in my elementary school. And as a teen I spent too much time watching dystopian sci-fi movies, and considering the numerous ways the world could fall apart. But I never feared that my mind might succumb to paranoia until the day my iPhone started keeping track of my breakfast habits.
A few days previously, I’d decided to switch from coffee to tea for breakfast, and I generally steep my tea for three minutes. After about three days of using the timer on my phone to do this, the phone spontaneously started asking me each morning if I’d like to set my timer for three minutes. When I switched back to coffee, it eventually caught on and stopped giving the reminder. Now, I’m waiting for the morning that it reminds me to descale my Keurig.
It doesn’t stop with breakfast. My phone knows my whole schedule. It knows when I leave for work and tells me my expected travel time as soon as I start my car. It then remembers where I parked, and tells me how long it should take to walk back to my car. So far it hasn’t told me to walk faster if I’m falling behind its estimate, but I can see it happening.
Now I’m starting to suspect my phone of being involved in conspiracies that I can’t quite prove. For instance, I stopped in a Shaw’s supermarket recently and bought two boxes of rice pilaf mix. Three days later when I logged onto Facebook, an ad from Shaw’s came up for a sale on the exact rice mix that I’d bought. I hadn’t paid for it with a credit card or used a store loyalty card, so how did Facebook know to target me? I’m sure my phone had something to do with it.
I think that, since I’ve bought that brand of rice at stores where I have used loyalty cards, I’m on some sort of master list of rice buyers. And when my GPS realized I had gone into a Shaw’s, this was somehow cross-referenced and analyzed and filtered through algorithms too complicated for anyone with a liberal arts degree to comprehend. And it was therefore determined that I should be targeted for a direct appeal from whatever complex conglomerate now owns Shaw’s.
The rice situation shouldn’t bother me, but what if I actually led a more exciting life than that of a rice-eating suburbanite? What if I were a gangster? Would my iPhone sell me out, and set me up for a hit the next time I went out to buy pastry? After the hit men had done their deed, would their smartphones remind them to leave the gun, but take the cannoli? Probably only if they bought their phones in Calabria.
I suppose the more real threat is from Saudi Arabia, now that it’s been alleged that their government was receiving intelligence from Twitter employees. I tend to avoid Twitter, just because of my anti-social nature. But if I ever needed to justify being a Twitter-phobe, the fact that user info was allegedly being spread to a royal family suspected of dismembering a journalist is a pretty good reason. Luckily, I’m not planning any visits to Saudi consulates soon, and there’s no way I’m going to the country itself, at least not until they take down that skyscraper that looks like the Eye of Sauron from Lord of the Rings.
But I’m being alarmist. When has this grand web of technology ever been anything but helpful to me? Who cares if someone’s keeping track of where I park, or how many times I’ve viewed different versions of the “Woman Yelling at Cat” meme. I should stop worrying and learn to love my phone. It’s not spying; it’s just looking after me. Right?
Back in 1967, Richard Brautigan wrote a poem called “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” in which humanity was, well I guess you can surmise it from the title. You can debate whether the poem is serious or ironic, but either way it was certainly ahead of its time. So has the poem come true? It’s a bit of a stretch to suppose that Siri, despite her dulcet voice, has any loving grace in her. But at least I’m being watched over by machines that want to save me money on rice.