Here are the facts of the situation: It was early last summer. My wife was at the airport. The weather was hot, her shuttle bus late. She was texting with a family member who had come down with a cough. The family member had taken a Covid test and reported that it was negative. My wife, returning to the topic of her stressful day, typed the words “I need a,” intending to write “I need a drink.” But the autocomplete feature on her phone, interceding at the speed of thought—of artificial, digital thought—offered another suggestion: “I need a booster.”
The nightmare is all right there, if you unpack it: The unsought programming of human behavior by pervasive technologies controlled by deceptive, obscure actors. They are deceptive, in this case, because autocomplete is sold as a kind of extension of your will, frontrunning your most probable verbal choices to save you time and ease your writing. The feature isn’t sold, so far as I’m aware, as a life coach, a public-health aide, or a physician. But it had behaved like one that day, and my wife, who notices everything, had caught it; she even took a screenshot. When she told me of the incident, it confirmed an emerging feeling that my own texts were often interrupted by digital guides less interested in finishing my thoughts than in foisting on me their own. Going with the eerie flow of life in a mediated, moderated age, I had chosen to ignore them. I had let them pass.
It’s a choice we face constantly these days, particularly in our dealings with technology and the information flooding through it: Should we indulge our suspicions about the machine and the murky power complex it represents, or should we dismiss them, in some cases or all?