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Reading Our Minds

Am I imagining that corporate forces are reading my email and listening to my phone conversations, at least some of the time? I am not someone who likes to think that way. I know that many people have over the years contended that the government is spying on them. I don’t much think that. But I am beginning to think that it is being done by corporations.

I find that if I look up a particular subject online, the incessant ads which my AOL Mail inserts on the margins of any email I write , or delete after having read, will sometimes relate to that subject, in the form of an ad, of course.. During the enforced staying at home, I looked up shoes to buy online, and then I started seeing ads from online shoe sellers, even though I had never ordered any shoes, or given them any information. It is not the ads I mind so much, though I do not like the constant inundating with ads that we get each day. It is the sense that they have planted…I don’t know what, tripwires? algorithms? to monitor what people are writing about or reading.

I have even had phone conversations where something talked about suddenly transfigures into an ad in my mail. This doesn’t happen often, and maybe it is just one of those “when you talk about something,, or see an unusual word, it is funny how it seems to come up again very soon” things. But it is disconcerting, because if they read mail, they can listen to phone calls, or at least have some mechanism where, when certain words are said, they trigger something which alerts the bots which are out there, and they get turned into ads.

Again, I am certainly not a conspiracy theorist. But this does not seem too far-fetched. We have a capitalist society where companies must fight for survival, and must sell more each cycle. They will do virtually anything to get people to buy their products. We know that they are always trying to perfect the insidious technique of persuasion, where they will entice, seduce, scare and unsettle people enough to get them to buy their products. Their basic themes are: “You will attract other people, and be part of the ‘in crowd,’ if you buy, consume, wear or drive this” ; and “You will be uncool, shunned and lonely if you do not use, imbibe, groom with, wear, or act like this.”

There is a short story, “The Subliminal Man,” by J. G. Ballard. I do not remember it too well, but the essence was that the British government had banned subliminal advertising, but that some companies were resorting to it again, because apparently the built-in obsolescence which they had put into large devices, was not enough to create the massive buying each year which they needed, so they decided to use subliminal devices to compel people to keep buying at a faster and faster rate.

Corporations have become like creatures, and their imperative is to survive. They will do whatever they think they need to do to survive and grow. So why would they not resort to subliminal advertising? It has been made illegal, but corporations do not think they have to abide by rules. So why not create algorithms to discern what people are writing or talking about, and then make specific, but often very subtle, ads for them?

We know that the Republicans used Cambridge Analytics to harvest and utilize voter information data, to target them with specific fake news, designed to get them to shun Hillary and like Trump. Facebook played a large, and almost certainly knowing, part in this. So if corporations can get their hands on a wealth of personal data, they can create programs which can likely find just what kind of terms or fake stories will compel their targets to vote for the candidate they want, or whom someone is paying billions of dollars to them to get elected.. Put that way, it is both logical and chilling.

One of my favorite novels ever, is one that many people do not know. “Dying Inside,” by Robert Silverberg. He would be called a science fiction writer, who later wrote fantasy novels., but he was more than that. He is a very fine writer, and some of his older novels, while falling in those genres, actually transcended them. “Dying Inside” is brilliant, and I think it is one of the great novels of the last sixty years or so. It has as its protagonist and narrator, David Selig, who has been aware from the age of nine or so, that he is a telepath, he can read minds. The novel, with incredible insight and compassion, traces the logical effects of having that ability, which Selig finds is not just limited to him, there are other telepaths out there.

For David, it is a source of feeling special, but also being very lonely and alienated. When he first discovered this power, it was exciting. But now, as he is starting to lose the power in his early forties, he muses over what it has given and taken away. There is a scene where he is on a bus or subway in New York, and he is forced to listen to the static of people’s mundane thoughts as they ride along. He cannot stop it or turn it off.

For whatever reasons, Selig considers himself a failure. He has never found a job he really liked, though he did work with a stockbroker for some time, and gingerly used the power to gain knowledge of stock tips. Now he just writes term papers for college students who pay him small prices to avoid having to do it. He has no girlfriend. He remembers two women he cared for. One of them was someone whose mind he somehow could not read, which was very exciting to him, and caused him to want to find out why, and to keep giving her ESP tests, to the point that she shrank away from him.

There is another telepath whom Selig has encountered, maybe in the brokerage firm. This man is arrogant and actually sociopathic in how he uses his telepathy. He is successful in the stock market world, he uses it to attract women; he has no compunction about it. He is rather contemptuous of Selig, tells him that he has this special power, he should use it and revel in it. But Selig is not like that; he is full of guilt and sometimes even self-contempt. He has begun to hate his power, but as it now starts to disappear, he is terrified of having to be like everyone else, interacting without knowledge, just inference and supposition. The thing which has alienated him, has at least made him special, so how can he cope with losing it?

I think of this novel in various contexts. As I write about the fear that immensely large and powerful corporations will try to collect every fact about the personalities, needs and wants of their consumer targets, I do not think that this is too far off from manufactured virtual telepathy. If people’s natures can be discerned from what they say, what they write, how they react to what others say to them; then gathering all this data from their letters, stated preferences, how they answer planted online polls, what they say on the phone or even on the street or in public places, would be immensely lucrative to the entities which need to keep selling them things. Cars, kitchen implements, toilette items, pharmaceuticals, political candidates, ideas, and viewpoints; all are potentially malleable and saleable.

A really good governing body would try to protect its citizens from this mining of their privacy and personalities.. Is it not at least as dangerous, if not more so, than any outside threat? Maybe “X Files” was about things like that; I never watched it, nor indeed any of those shows, outside of “Twilight Zone,” which did venture into those realms. There was a movie which my parents saw, “Our Man Flint,” a sort of parody of James Bond movies, where apparently the “Big Bad” was the telephone company. They liked that concept as a warning against the dangers posed by immense corporations, but we are further along that road now.

And do you know what? As I wrote this, the spell check which was not there when I bought this computer some years ago, but which somehow got added by some entity, probably AOL, or Windows, or whatever they are, and which seems to be automatically on, wherever I write; and which I am told by people who know more about computers than I, that it cannot easily be removed, kept finding words like “saleable,” or “moveable” to be incorrectly spelled, which they are not. They do that with other words, too, which I am virtually certain I am spelling correctly and which checking them confirms. Who set those algorithms, and why do they insist on trying to insert their own spellings, rather than letting people, as my mother would sometimes frustratingly say to me as a boy, “Look it up.”? If the computer’s spellings were always right, it might be one thing, but they are not, and apparently no one there knows enough about the words to fix it. Unless the computer programmers intend to dictate the spellings?

I kept hearing ads on YouTube,where I sometimes go to listen to hard to find music, for something called “Grammarly,” which I think purports to change people’s diction in writing. Is “1984’s” “Ungood,” and “Plus Good” far behind? Why will they not leave us alone?! Is the goal to smooth out expressiveness, and differences, to the point that everyone sounds and reacts the same, and thus succumbs to every marketing ploy used on them? Never!! To the battlements, to defend our individuality, and freedom from being besieged by marketers and would-be controllers of thoughts and responses!!