Monday, May 23, 2016

Loose lips

I'm not sure how creeped out I should be by this story. Put another way, I'm sure I should be creeped out, but I'm not sure I'm creeped out enough.

Last night I was watching "Preacher," and hoping that the parts I liked will stay and the parts I didn't are just pilot-episode shakedown issues. At one point in the story, a Texas small-town sheriff says to someone else, "Yessiree bob."

I turned to the friend sitting next to me and said, "Do people still say 'yessiree bob?'" At which point a curious thing happened.

My Samsung tablet, about arm's reach away from me, and in sleep mode, suddenly woke up and beeped. After a moment, I recognized it as the sound Android makes to acknowledge when I say "OK Google" and it's waiting for instructions (set a timer, open an app, etc.). But it was, as I say, supposed to be asleep. So I tapped the start button, entered my lock code, and discovered that when it heard me say "Do people still say 'yessiree bob?'" it mistook that as instructions to launch a Google search for the phrase "People like the same rhubarb." This it promptly did.

(The inadvertent search, it must be said, didn't turn up anything terribly useful. It turns out that some people loathe rhubarb, some think it's great in fruit pies, and one blogger devoted 500 words, plus pictures, to differentiating rhubarb and Swiss chard – bottom line there: they look similar from about 50 feet away but that's where any similarity ends.)

It was a jolt to realize that unless the tablet is completely shut off (and perhaps the battery removed?) it's always listening to me. I guess I was dimly aware that this was possible, but in two years of having a tablet and generally keeping it close at hand I don't remember it ever happening. And second, it's not always listening very carefully. I didn't say the magic words "OK Google" (perhaps it thought it heard something like that in the ambient noise), and it didn't get my words clearly anyway. And third, that bit of nonsense is now enshrined in my Google search history, which can be deleted in its entirety but not edited to remove only specific items.

So it's lucky for me that it did come up with nonsense, I suppose. Imagine if it had inferred from a nearby conversation about "Arsenic and Old Lace" that I wanted suggestions on how to poison someone and dispose of the body. How would I have explained that to the local law enforcement people?

Or suppose, based on a remark it overheard, me mentioning my relief that I'd brought a book along to read while waiting for my delayed flight to finally board, a flight I wasn't looking forward to anyway, it had concluded I was planning to write a story about a man who must travel to the past to prevent something that will change the future for the worse – how would I have explained that to Harlan Ellison's lawyers?

A common moment in spy fiction (or dystopian fiction more generally) comes when someone has to be reminded that, in enemy territory (however defined – Cold War Moscow, Winston Smith's London, Terry Benedict's three casinos, or post-Patriot Act America), someone is always listening. Last night was a reminder of how complicit we all are in surveilling and tracking ourselves. 

I never found the answer to my question, by the way. The closest I got was this.

Thanks, Google.

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