AI Is a Hall of Mirrors

Essay by Meghan Houser: “Here is the paradox… First: Everything is for you. TikTok’s signature page says it, and so, in their own way, do the recommendation engines of all social media. Streaming platforms triangulate your tastes, brand “engagements” solicit feedback for a better experience next time, Google Maps asks where you want to go, Siri and Alexa wait in limbo for reply. Dating apps present our most “compatible” matches. Sacrifices in personal data pay (at least some) dividends in closer tailoring. Our phones fit our palms like lovers’ hands. Consumer goods reach us in two days or less, or, if we prefer, our mobile orders are ready when we walk into our local franchise. Touchless, frictionless, we move toward perfect inertia, skimming engineered curves in the direction of our anticipated desires.

Second: Nothing is for you. That is, you specifically, you as an individual human person, with three dimensions and password-retrieval answers that actually mean something. We all know by now that “the algorithm,” that godlike personification, is fickle. Targeted ads follow you after you buy the product. Spotify thinks lullabies are your jam because for a couple weeks one put your child to sleep. Watch a political video, get invited down the primrose path to conspiracy. The truth of aggregation, of metadata, is that the for you of it all gets its power from modeling everyone who is not, in fact, you. You are typological, a predictable deviation from the mean. The “you” that your devices know is a shadow of where your data-peers have been. Worse, the “you” that your doctor, your insurance company, or your banker knows is a shadow of your demographic peers. And sometimes the model is arrayed against you. A 2016 ProPublica investigation found that if you are Black and coming up for sentencing before a judge who relies on a criminal sentencing algorithm, you are twice as likely to be mistakenly deemed at high risk for reoffending than your white counterpart….(More)”

Whoever you are, the algorithms’ for you promise at some point rings hollow. The simple math of automation is that the more the machines are there to talk to us, the less someone else will. Get told how important your call is to us, in endless perfect repetition. Prove you’re a person to Captcha, and (if you’re like me) sometimes fail. Post a comment on TikTok or YouTube knowing that it will be swallowed by its only likely reader, the optimizing feed.

Offline, the shadow of depersonalization follows. Physical spaces are atomized and standardized into what we have long been calling brick and mortar. QR, a language readable only to the machines, proliferates. The world becomes a little less legible. Want to order at this restaurant? You need your phone as translator, as intermediary, in this its newly native land…(More)”.

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