My In-laws Wrecked the Online Me

I’m screwed. I’ve spent the last ten years carefully cultivating my online and digital persona by posting the right posts, watching the right shows on my internet connected DVR, buying the right stuff on Amazon and searching for the right stuff on Google.

But then, five days ago, my in-laws came to visit from Indiana to celebrate my son’s 18th birthday and high school graduation. Instead of PBS, hockey and football, DirecTV has been tuned to reruns of Survivor, Hee Haw and Deadliest Catch. The router is now processing requests for Yahoo, country music is streaming on Spotify and cute kitten videos are clogging up my YouTube.

I’d finally gotten my online profile just right. Only about 23% of the ads served to me were irrelevant – a big step-up from just a few years ago. The cloud knew who I was – and the cloud brought me what I wanted.

Now the cloud is all confused.  When I do a travel search, I’m bombarded with pleas to visit Graceland and Branson – when what I’m really looking for are discounts to Dubrovnik. On TripAdvisor, I no longer see quirky little rustic hotels and resorts – instead it thinks I want to stay at a Holiday Inn Express. On Amazon, I’ve been served up suggestions like “The Bridges of Madison County” and American Girl ads. And don’t get me started on what Netflix and YouTube now think I want to watch.

It’ll take me months to get the borg to know who I am again, and to accurately predict what I want to watch, buy, listen to and who I want to talk to. My protective bubble has been pierced by the dreams and opinions of the someone very clearly not me, AND I AM NOT HAPPY!

At least that’s how I felt yesterday.  But last night, as I dreamed of staying in Nepenthe and hiking through Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in my Oboz, a liberating thought pervaded my befogged brain. What if this was exactly what I needed? What if, rather than a perfect online instantiation of me that could be perfectly served by the internet’s data gods, instead I’d created a golem? And rather than making me happier, this golem was wreaking havoc on my bank account and sucking away my very soul of independence? What if that finely crafted bubble was actually a prison – a prison built with my own complicity?

Maybe it was right to inject some noise into the system. Maybe, just maybe, my in-laws had unwittingly freed me from being categorized, personified and dissected by powerful and menacing entities that did not have my best interests at heart. What if the real me was gone – replaced by that perfectly shaped and immutable alabaster persona?

I started pondering the downside of machine learning and big data, which will very soon be able to model the behaviors, wants, needs and impulses of every single human connected to the internet. I started resenting that that machine could aim to know me better than I know myself.

And then I started wondering. Just how far could I game the machine? Could I inject so much noise into the system that it would no longer have a clear picture of who I was – and in that way, free me from the echo chamber of my existence?

So I started feeding the machine noise. Instead of the same old places, I told the nice Waze-lady to take me to The Olympic Club (an exclusive San Francisco golf club – and I hate golf), and a Willy Nelson concert. I searched the Goog for horseback riding (I’m deathly allergic to horses), created a season pass on my DVR for the CBS Evening News, and started subscribing to the Prairie Home Companion podcast.

I bought baked beans and hominy grits at Safeway, frozen lumpias at 99 Ranch Market, denture cream at Rite Aid and Axe body spray from Amazon. I searched Zillow for mansions in Detroit and beachfront shacks in Mussel Shoals. I researched parachute jumping lessons and looked into buying a used Cadillac Eldorado. I binge-watched Fantasy Island on Netflix. In short, I tried everything I could to muck up that perfect and perfectly awful digital pastiche of “me”.

Did it work? I have no idea. I’ve just started. But the more I think about it, the more I like the idea of figuring out a way to mess up the borg’s digital instantiation of who I am. Because in the end, I don’t want – today – to be who I was yesterday. If we are the sum of our experiences, I don’t want to be spoon fed yesterday’s gruel – I want to make my own messy stew and see what I like and what I don’t.

In fact, that’s not a bad idea for a startup. Similar to how credit scores model your ability to pay back loans, I’d really like a “persona” score – where I could see how the cloud views me.  Even better, I’d love a finely crafted personal plan to turn it all pear-shaped.

Yes, I learned a lot from having my in-laws visit. I’m much more careful with how I depict myself online, and I routinely erase my search history and my cookies. Oh, and surprisingly, I really do like hominy grits and Hee-Haw. Please don’t tell Amazon (or my in-laws)!