Open Thinkering


Tag: surveillance capitalism

The auto-suggested life is not worth living

If you use Google products such as Android, Google Docs, or Gmail, you may have noticed more suggestions recently.

On the other hand, suggestions made while I’m composing an email or writing in a Google Doc are a bit different. I find this as annoying as someone else trying to finish my sentences during a conversation. That’s not what I was going to say.

Some of these can be helpful, for example when replying to questions posed via messenging services. There are definitely times when I’m in a hurry and just need to say ‘Okay’ or give a thumbs-up to my wife.

In a recent article for The Art of Manliness, Brett and Kate McKay point out the potential toll of these nudges:

Some of society’s options for living represent time-tested traditions — distillations of centuries of experiments in the art of human flourishing. Many of our mores, however, owe their existence to expediency, conformity, laziness. Practices born from once salient but no longer relevant circumstances are continued from sheer inertia, from that flimsiest of rationalizations: “That’s the way it’s always been done.”

Brett and Kate McKay

The suggestions in Google’s products come from machine learning which is, by definition, looking to the past to predict the future. One way to think about this is as a subtle pressure to conform.

Back in December last year, I was in NYC presenting on surveillance capitalism for a talk entitled Truth, Lies, and Digital Fluency. Riffing on Shoshana Zuboff’s book, I explained that surveillance capitalists want to be able to predict your next move and sell this to advertisers, insurers, and the like.

It’s an approach rooted in behaviourism, the idea that a particular stimulus always leads to a particular response. The closer they can get to that, the more money they can make. It’s true what Aral Balkan has been pointing out for years: we’re being farmed by surveillance capitalists.

Who wants to live this kind of life? But it’s not just the explicit auto-suggestions that we need to be of. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter feed off, and monetise through advertising, the emotions we feel about certain subjects. They are rage machines.

Stimulus: response. Let’s not lose our ability to think, to reason, and (above all) be rational.

This post is Day 33 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at