Is this the demise of human intuition in exchange for computer algorithms?
This is Google's Ngram Viewer. It shows the frequency of a word use over time. The reading shown in the graph is for the word coincidence, a word that has been less commonly used as computer technology progresses.
Why is this a problem?
Do you ever wonder how those almost perfectly curated recommendations are made to you, and more importantly what they are doing to your sense of agency?
I, like many, am guilty of 'overusing' Youtube for its well curated selection of videos and music, or even Amazon for its book recommendations. Perhaps you have a similar experience with Netflix or Instagram or Heroine?
Yet, I find myself 'waking up' halfway through a Youtube video or 10 pages into a book thinking “how the fuck did I get here?” Did I plan to watch this video or read this book or did a moment of boredom lead me to the dopamine machine?
The same thing happens on dates through the dating apps, in which people advertise themselves as one thing, yet you turn up to find something older, balder and duller. Yet many of us would happily rely on this technology to let us go and be underwhelmed when the actual person doesn't match the online persona, as opposed to taking a recommendation from a friend who knows you both.
Now some people meet their long-term partners through the apps and one in every 10 books I order is usually able to hold my attention for a bit. What I'm saying is that there is something to this technology, and as it progresses it may yield better results. The problem is that it creates false expectations, and frankly. When we are unsure what to do with ourselves, we simply submit to these algorithms to make decisions for us.
What has this got to do with me?
There are plenty of examples of how detrimental technology can be for us, but this example is about losing a human sense.
Now I'm not that old but I thought back to the days before the internet was a necessity, before Amazon was a consumerist gateway. A time where a thought would cross my mind like, “what a coincidence, I was thinking about buying this book and here it is, in a second hand book shop”, and then I thought, “what happened to coincidences? People don't talk like this anymore". Now it's all correlation and causation, everything must be approached mathematically.
My curiosity got the better of me. Using the Google Ngram tool (cue the thoughts of irony), I decided to see if there was a correlation between the demise of the use of word coincidence, now that computers program most of our daily 'coincidences'. If it is not clear by now, my hypothesis was that technology has been a big driving force in the demise in our agency and thus our instinct.
Low and behold, there is a sharp drop from 2004 until 2013 at which point the word ‘coincidence’ hits zero. Similar results were found on a search for ‘instinct’ and ‘intuition’.
The original 15th century meaning of instinct was “prompting”. This was meant in the sense of the animal faculty of intuitive perception, yet we appear to have given over agency to the prompting of our technological devices. We even refer to these algorithms as intuitive due to their complexity, ye they are nowhere near as complex as the human mind.
What will you do?
Now, your phone is listening to your conversations, tracking your eye movements and perhaps even the programmed redundancy of a product you bought five years ago. It can send you an ad and continue to feed itself, just as we nourish ourselves with work and food etc. This species lacks its own agency, so we feed it with ours.
The result is that we are flooded every minute of every day by computer programmed ‘coincidences’ and thus any real world coincidences go unnoticed as they have occurred randomly and are seemingly meaningless without binary code behind them. Instinct is becoming more of a rare commodity, as we try to use our minds to rationalise things as robots do.
Why is this important? When was the last time you experienced a coincidence?
Given that we spend much of our days immersed in the virtual world, In the age of AI, large tech companies are not only able to anticipate your every move but can make recommendations to fit every aspect of your life. In this instance we know that there are complex algorithms at play, reducing humans to numbers and using our behaviour patterns to feed these evermore complex calculations, and while they provide massive benefits to mundane tasks like keeping calendars, communicating efficiently with people and even ordering our grocery shopping, there is an expectation from us humans that if these systems can do this, then they can do a lot more for me.
If you stop and think for a minute about the services you pay for like Microsoft Office, which provides value as a utility and you must proactively engage with it, as opposed to social media platforms, for which there is a tendency to turn to in a destructive manner to pass the time, but in doing so are subjected to a variety of stimulus from advertisements to opinion pieces and various other influences.
We seem to have become so reliant on recommendations from the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook and Tinder that we are losing the ability to know what we want. If we feel lost for a single moment in our day, we can open any of the above apps and have a temporary cure for our ‘boredom’, rather than facing our own thoughts, or dare I say, exploring the creativity of our minds.
It is almost as if we are voluntarily subservient to them, in a way that giving over our agency to technology means we don't need to grapple with our own, seemingly inefficient minds. Like slaves that don't have freedom of agency, we submit ours out of choice to technology.
This is not a jab at the technology or the companies, even if they do program these apps to tantalise your dopamine receptors or open your wallets with the empty promise of fulfilment, because there are benefits to these systems, there are businesses advertising on them that can benefit you, but as humans, we must learn to sift through the shit until we're immune to anything that doesn't fit with your true desires.
The recommendations may seem like they suit ‘a person like you’, but they never actually suit you. The material possessions bought on Amazon due to a value discount end up in storage after a week, the hour long date from Tinder is soon forgotten when the next date comes along, and that book, that book sits there taunting you for not be able to focus on it just isn't for you right now. This is analogous to feeling tired. The instinctive reaction is to drink coffee, find energy pills, research articles on iron deficiency etc., while in reality you probably just need to catch up on sleep and stop pushing yourself so hard, yet you try to keep up with everyone around you because they ‘seem to be managing’.
As this technology becomes more intrusive, not just with regards to your online persona, but also with the advent of technologies like Neurolink, the question to ask is whether these increasingly intuitive algorithms will eventually make your agency redundant or whether your nature will rebel against them.