Saturday, December 26, 2020

You Robot...,

TNR |  The Buddha recommends practicing greater mindfulness throughout our waking day. The ultimate insight, however, is that when we peer within and try to gauge or pin down the elusive ego, there is nothing there. As Zen master D. T. Suzuki put it, the fruit of concerted and disciplined meditation is to see the “I” flapping like a loose door in the wind, coming off its hinges with each breath.

Halo, by contrast, promises to deliver only narcissism and self-obsession. The device doesn’t offer real insight into your inner states but reports on how you seem to other people. As Amazon’s medical officer Maulik Majmudar explains, “People are relatively unaware of how they sound to others and the impact that may have on their personal and professional relationships.” If you sound irritated, angry, restrained, or overbearing, you can adjust your tone and delivery to seem otherwise.

Doesn’t this invite you to second-guess every utterance and interaction and fret over how you look in the eyes of judging peers? This is the least helpful kind of self-knowledge since it is wholly insecure, constantly shifting, eternally uncertain. I can and never will know how others assess me—this is beyond my control. Trying to grasp this, or influence it with any consistency or certainty, is a futile chase and a recipe for madness. It evokes the anxiety that therapists attribute to social media use.

But if Halo is of little use to me, who is it principally for? Amazon has vowed that it will not pillage the data collected; Halo spies only for you. For now. But it establishes an important precedent and inures us to constant surveillance. Thus, it opens the door for hungry marketers. Surveillance is at the heart of the digital economy; it’s what makes, or promises to make, digital services superior. The more we divulge, the more precisely, efficiently, and effectively these services help us. They can tell you what you want before you know you want it. On the promise of personalized service and greater convenience, we invariably comply.

Why might marketers want to know about your emotional states? How are they benefited by knowing you are sad for 1.6 seconds at 12:30 p.m.? Marketers can take advantage of you in such moments and pitch products and services that you are susceptible to. As media scholar Zeynep Tufekci argues, it’s but a short step from identifying your vulnerabilities to creating them. If Amazon determines you are depressed, for example, it may know exactly what movies you will indulge in, what snack foods you will load up on—what “retail therapy” soothes you at that moment.