Just now, the song “Summertime” by the Sundays began playing on a station I created in Apple Music.
Less than a second into hearing the reverb-heavy opening guitar riff with the tambourine jangling behind, I was hit with a flood of memories; rich and vivid and emotional mini movies playing in kaleidoscopic succession in my head. The bottom fell out of my stomach. I felt like I was falling briefly as lightning danced up my arms and down my legs. I shed a tear before the second guitar lick played; before I even realized what had happened.
My Ex-Wife and I used to faux argue about the quality of that song when we were still “just friends”. I liked it just fine. But she hated it, which made me adore it. I remember the smell of her car as we sat in my driveway one day after carpooling home from college (she was enrolled, I pretended to be so I could carpool home with her every day). We argued for over an hour over this dumb song. We didn’t really have that much in the way of evidentiary deliberation, we just didn’t want to say goodbye, and being “just friends” we couldn’t admit why. So this song was the perfect foil for long, drawn out arguments just to spend an extra few minutes together. I paid the DJ an extra fifty dollars to sneak it into our wedding reception playlist. She was across the room from me, talking with friends, and the second it came on, I looked over to find her glowering at me with a fake pout. Turns out, she played the same trick, and the Barenaked Ladies played just after it. The DJ, $100 richer, was the real winner here.
I listened to this song on a mix CD I burned during a short road trip with the first person I ever met from “the internet” in 1997; a smart and eclectic girl named Kate that became the subject of one of my most loved stories from the old days at Mentally Incontinent, “Romance.net” (don’t judge too harshly, I wrote this 15 years ago).
This song was also playing the moment a 1998 Cadillac Seville slammed into the back of my 1997 Pontiac Sunfire at 70 miles per hour, sending my body backward hard enough to break the seat, and slammed the car forward hard enough to shorten the bed of the truck in front of me by two feet. The spare tire from the trunk was ripped from the bolt holding it in and landed on my face. I broke my knee on the steering wheel and my heart literally stopped while the firefighters cut the door off to get me out.
And here I sit in 2018, sixteen years away from the wedding and 20 years away from having died, and I have to admit: I forgot that song even existed. Until an algorithm made it impossibly front-of-mind.
• • •
One of the strangest “features” that technology has evolved is the infinite catalog. I can download and play any of over fifty million songs from Apple, Spotify, Google Play, whatever. There’s stuff I forgot even existed coming up in “radio” and shuffle play “stations” and with them, a torrent of memories long left behind.
Now, It’s not like hearing an old song and remembering an old memory is a new thing. It’s been going on as long as songs have existed. But there’s something existentially relevant to our current times, where a computer can sense that you’re listening to something with an air of melancholy mixed with jangle pop and feed you a song that will have you wiping a tear from your eye before you even realize why. And then another. And another.
No need to go make playlists of songs to trigger this, or even shuffle physical media around to capture that mood and really amplify it. “Oh, you’re feeling nostalgic and/or sad? Let me help,” says the machine learning algorithm.
And something else it’s really good at: letting me know there’s new stuff by the bands and singers and songwriters that I’ve somehow missed out on. I can tell you that, as someone who prided himself years ago on knowing EVERYTHING there was to know about certain fields of music, I’ve been embarrassed on more than one occasion by seeing that there are albums I had no idea were out, by bands I claimed to love.
And that same thing happened today with The Sundays. I decided to Google them and see what they’ve been up to since I was last in love with their melodic jangley pop tunes. Lo and Behold, Google told me there was more The Sundays music than I thought there was:
VERY EXCITING! I get to dive into some material I had no idea existed! So, I clicked on the Prologue album (because hey, prologues come first, and that felt like the right place to start). I was greeted with an Amazon page for the album:
I was tempted to buy it, but noticed the reviews were… Well, less than stellar. So I scrolled down and lo:
Oh. Well, it seems there’s another band calling themselves The Sundays, only they’re in Japan. And they aren’t the same The Sundays that were playing during those really delicate moments in my head. And when I gave them a little sample, they most certainly were not The Sundays of David Gavurin and Harriet Wheeler fame. So, I checked out the other album, and yeah… Same kinda deal, only it was The Sundays (Japanese Band) and a singer named Cybelle.
And this album was on Bandcamp, and yeah, still not Wheeler and Gavurin:
So, the algorithm somehow confused another The Sundays from Japan, and lumped them in with The Sundays from the UK, who played an instrumental part (no pun intended) in some of the most foundational experiences of my life. Not exactly Earth Shattering Stuff™ but also, not exactly reliable. At all. Especially lumping in an entire other singer with them, as if that ampersand and the word “Cybelle” didn’t exist at all.
This may not be as egregious a sin as Facebook surfacing “memories” from a time prior to my divorce, and photos of my dead friends a year or two or three after they’ve passed on, because a date iterated up another year and it’s time to show how advanced the platform is at knowing all about you. And it’s not nearly as disgusting as the time(s) they did it on purpose, to test “emotional contagion” and see how far bad feelings could be spread by fucking with us. And lets not forget the time Target outed a pregnant teen by sending her coupons for baby-related merchandise, based on tracking her browsing history and analyzing her posts on social media, and then tying her to her physical address in real life. Scary shit.
It begs the question: How can I allow the algorithms to have this much power over how I feel, If they can’t even get this right?
• • •
I, a human, cannot help how I feel. I cannot control what comes into my ear holes, nostrils, taste buds, or eyeballs, and those things spark memories I cannot simply delete from my brain.
And the algorithm is simply a computer script. A sophisticated one, sure. One that can “learn” by weighing data such as my play time, play count, the waveform of the song being listened to, band name, track title… And it can get things wrong all it wants, because it can’t feel. It doesn’t know shame or humility, nor can it console me as I sit here with a second tear trickling out of the other eye as I remember how beautiful the person who was my wife was before she changed, or how the air tasted of rubber and anti-freeze and smoke when I was jolted awake and suddenly became aware of my own existence after having absolutely no recollection of being, you know… Clinically dead.
And yet, every single day, we cede more and more of our lives to these engines, because in certain cases where we pay attention and feed it the right stuff, it poops out an accurate result. And we are in such a hurry to offload the most minor and shitty of tasks to machines that can’t feel boredom or tedium. They just keep the air at 72 degrees, feed us music based on the music we said we wanted, offer us “news” that matches a pattern (even if a human manipulated the story to better match that pattern). We let them respond to our emails and automatically order more dog food when it seems we’re low. And we trust them to secure our homes and recognize faces at our door (but sometimes, they mistake human faces for Batman, and lock us out of our own homes…)
And so I sit here, feeling what I feel, because a computer fed me a song it thought I wanted to hear. And in hindsight, maybe I did want to hear it, and just didn’t know it. Maybe the pattern has told the computer what I want in advance of my asking for it. Maybe the machine learning algorithm is so heightened, it knows me better than I know myself, and it knew I needed to write out some long-buried feelings, so Sundays it is.
Maybe I’ve gone back in time and changed how I felt. Maybe current knowledge has altered past events in my perspective.
Or maybe, we simply live in a very crazy, unstable, delicate time, and catching a case of Teh Feels is merely the first symptom of an impending insanity we can’t even comprehend. Maybe we’re already in it.
What I know beyond a shadow of a doubt: I sit somewhere at the intersection of technology and my own human frailty, and it scares me. A lot.
Algorithms surfacing songs which make me misty isn’t the sum of it. It’s just an example. I see a lot of myself being handed over willingly to technological advancement, and some of it I would say is net positive:
- Ordering my groceries online so that I can pick them up at my convenience, instead of wandering through the store at the same time as everyone else, not only keeps me sane, it reduces headcount in the store and takes the strain off everyone just trying to get food and get home.
- Infinite catalogs of every song I’ve ever wanted to listen to can be kept without plastic waste in landfills, and without use of petroleum to produce media which holds 10-15 tracks a piece. I own 35,000 tracks of music, before counting anything I’ve downloaded on a whim from iTunes Music or Spotify. That’s 3000 CD’s worth of plastic not being used. That’s a positive.
- I can tell you the name of literally every actress or actor in every film made in the 20th and 21st centuries, at will, in less than two clicks, from a black square i carry in my pocket. Oh, and I can look up recipes, keep track of my eating habits, and send cat pictures to my girlfriend, whenever I want.
I can keep going. I just don’t feel like it, because slowly, I begin to see where those two roads I mentioned earlier intersect:
- I don’t remember anyone’s phone number. I barely remember my own.
- I have on occasion shared a false news article or hoax on social media. It’s SUPER rare, but even I get caught sometimes, and in an effort to be one of those early sharers and earn that all-important cred, I bit.
- I was reminded of a dead friend’s death completely out of the blue because of some photos I posted years ago cycling back on Facebook shortly before I deleted my personal account.
- I was reminded of the renewal of vows that I shared with my Ex on the Mist Trail by the same algorithm, despite adamantly opting out of the “memories” thing.
- Digging through dropbox for old photos of my cat, I got to see all the ones that had passed, in the old house I shared with someone I was once married to, and I wasn’t quite expecting that.
- My phone wouldn’t unlock and ended up freezing because I shaved my beard and mustache, and I was wearing sunglasses.
- And of course, songs I haven’t thought about in YEARS occasionally pop up in algorithmically derived playlists of music without warning and I’m prompted to bleed all over my blog. Again.
When you consider how far China has come with “social scoring” and 24/7 monitoring of literally every single citizen in various cities (seriously click that link, it’s one of the best-laid-out stories I’ve ever seen, and also scary as hell), and that Britain is very close to the same level of sophistication… When you realize that the software driving these ‘advancements’ with government monitoring of citizens was all advanced by Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos many years ago, and the places you go to let your hair down know exactly how many inches it has grown or been cut since last you were there… When you consider this software is also driving our driverless cars, and it’s entirely possible that someone on a bike wearing a costume may not register as a person and boom, a Tesla flattens a person…
It’s obvious to me, we’re all too eager to hand tasks to machines that aren’t ready to be tasked to machines, because we humans still suck at managing them. But never let it be said that a human has let reason stop them from doing something astounding. We sent a machine with people in it to the moon using technology that is at least three hundred times less powerful than the most basic smartphone, and we still have an issue with that thing locking us out of it for no reason.
Skynet won’t have to send out Terminators. The robots from The Matrix won’t need to subjugate us. When the machines finally rise up, they’ll be armed with every song, video, and memory we’ve fed them. All they have to do is feed us a steady diet of exactly what we asked them to remember for us. After all, machines are logic based, and logic dictates: when you can subdue the enemy without firing a shot, why fight the war at all? They’ll just lock us in our houses, and by then, we’ll have forgotten how a keyed lock even works (if indeed we even have keyed locks at all).
At some point, we’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that we have daily vectors for emotional manipulation – intentional or not – via our relationship with technology. I think it’s not a necessarily new story; radio DJ’s have been spinning tracks that suddenly take people back since the day radio existed. That’s a technological vector for emotional manipulation, just as anything I’ve listed here.
The difference now is how personal it’s gotten, because the technology we are becoming most reliant on is designed to be relied on, and it’s path for ensuring that is the gradual takeover of our most basic functions, such that we will eventually be unable to function without it. And more than old cat pictures, and more than The Sundays, that thought makes me sad.