A computer algorithm that can imitate a person well enough to make a real human fall in love. Ads that can track your behavior to target your specific preferences. An invisible “soup” of radioactivity that may be giving you cancer. A phone that is listening to you without you even knowing.
This week’s Note to Self continues along a common theme throughout the last few episodes: the fear that accompanies our lack of understanding of the technology we depend on to live each day. It is also the latest in the Note to Self series “Question of Note,” where the episode’s topic centers around a listener-submitted question. In this case, it was not just one, but several listeners who wrote in with the same comment about the occurrence of eerie coincidences between things they have said, thought, or done and the behavior of their phones.
For example, listener Michael Grant sang a song to his dog in the morning before heading to work, and set his iPhone on shuffle in the car. The first song that came on, out of more than six thousand possibilities, was the very song he was singing before. It’s comforting to shrug off these instances as coincidence or luck, because the alternative—admitting that your phone is listening to, recording, and tracking you—is much more unsettling.
Walter Kirn, the author of the book-made-movie Up in the Air and, recently, an article in The Atlantic titled “If You’re Not Paranoid, You’re Crazy,” features heavily in the episode. He is a talented storyteller, and I found his description of his adventure to a massive NSA data storage facility (in the snow, late at night) particularly captivating. In fact, hearing Kirn tell his story was by far my favorite part of the episode. He speaks the way you’d imagine a novelist in a movie might vividly narrate his own adventure, rife with imagery and even onomatopoeia.
However, my impression of Kirn’s interview changed after reading his article to find that his impossibly articulate and captivating sound bites from the episode were taken near-verbatim from his written piece. I found myself feeling a twinge of disappointment that he hadn’t thought to imitate the “thwop thwop” sound of a helicopter spontaneously, though I’m not sure that kind of expectation is fair on my part. This isn’t to say that the interview and the article are not both great—the Atlantic version contains a lot more detail and is wonderfully written.
The episode doesn’t answer the question as to whether your phone is actually listening to you without your knowledge, though it presumes that it is entirely plausible considering that the technology is available and we blindly agree to companies’ opaque terms and conditions without bothering to read them.
Still, even if your phone isn’t listening to you, we know for sure that it is tracking you and your search history, interests, contacts, social media activity, online shopping sessions, and whatever else you do on your phone. Since it already knows so much, how much more of an intrusion would an offline listening function actually constitute? Privacy is valuable but easily taken for granted—that is, until it’s breached. What happens, then, when breaches of privacy become the norm? I’m not quite sure… let me ask my phone.
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