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After numerous startling Facebook suggestions echoing sentiments I’d expressed aloud less than twenty-four hours before, I’ve quit fighting the idea that some apps on our devices are picking up on our conversations to suggest products and articles that suit our needs. Too far-fetched? How about this? I feel old and tired, I remark to my sister as we ride together in the car. The next day, an article with helpful tips appears in my feed. The title: “Feeling Old and Tired?” I took a screenshot of this stunning example of eavesdropping devices.
Then there was the time someone said to me, Not everyone appreciates me being frank and honest. The next day, there in my newsfeed, in case I needed to read up on the topic, was the article, “The Virtues of Frankness and Honesty.” Coincidence? Probably I had more chance of winning the lotto than encountering a coincidence like that.
The disturbing trend of intrusive suggestions includes products that came up in conversation. Did I casually mention that I was looking for a better pair of walking shoes? No worries, FB will bring footwear ads to my attention. Worse, my daughter is sure that Pinterest is tracking eye movement to bring up items similar to what she has been viewing. Her friends think so, too. I am not dismissing this idea.
All this is eerie enough, but I have a question that is going to sound weird. If you have been noticing the device listening pattern, do you ever get the feeling that the devices aren’t just listening, but they almost know what you’ve been thinking, as well? You see an ad and think, how on earth did FB know? It gets downright creepy. Okay, before you dismiss this impression as paranoia and move on to another post, I have a twofold explanation for the mind-reading phenomena.
First, some of the ads oddly parallel to your recent thoughts are merely coincidences. You probably think about products and topics that are trending. Second, and this is the meat of my post: in a sense, devices are reading our thoughts. Here is what I mean. No matter how hard we try, we cannot hide who we really are. And who we are starts in the mind, with our thought patterns. Our affections, resentments, worries, interests, and obsessions, along with the neediness, selfishness, and pride—all of these leak out of us directly and indirectly, and will not be suppressed.
I think that FB and other sites zone in on our preferences based on a combination of our conversations, texts, private messaging, e-mails, Internet searches, and—yes—what we briefly rest our gaze upon as we scroll down a page. In sum, these give a limited picture of our thoughts. This explanation does not soften the intrusive edge of these data-gathering practices. But looking at it this way does remind us of an inescapable truth of the human heart.
Now I just have to figure out why I get that daily promotion for porn-filtering software.