Not long ago, while searching for words to express a concept (the gist of which now escapes me), I got a nasty shock. Instead of offering yet more results, Google suddenly blocked me. WTF? Seems I’d unknowingly importuned the oracle.
With its usual lack of specificity, Google explained: ‘Our systems have detected unusual traffic from your computer network. This page checks to see if it’s really you sending the requests, and not a robot.’ Intrigued, I clicked on ‘Why did this happen?’
Well… ‘This page appears when Google automatically detects requests coming from your computer network which appear to be in violation of the Terms of Service.’ I doubted that. But part of the answer seemed feasible: ‘Sometimes you may be asked to solve the CAPTCHA if you are using advanced terms that robots are known to use, or sending requests very quickly.’ Was that what I’d been doing? Maybe… I clicked on ‘Learn more’ and learned: ‘If devices on your network seem to be sending automated traffic to Google, you might see “Our systems have detected unusual traffic from your computer network.”’
As for ‘What Google considers automated traffic’, there’s ‘Sending searches from a robot, computer program, automated service, or search scraper’ and ‘Using software that sends searches to Google to see how a website or webpage ranks on Google’. Automated, indeed! Should I feel flattered or offended? Here’s the thing, though: Google doesn’t want to be approached too closely; it’s an Old Testament kind of god, an authoritarian, jealous control freak. Anyone who thinks technology doesn’t embody the biases of its human designers (your clichéd dysfunctional geeks) is in denial.
FYI, here’s a list of the last several terms I typed, very quickly, before Google got paranoid:
content producer / content supplier / content maker / content generator / content meaning / content provider / content provider meaning / data repository meaning / data goldmine meaning / goldmine synonym
Some of the terms I come up with to describe certain phenomena seem to make sense at the time. But on doing a search to see if others have used them, I often discover they mean something else in another context, and my use of them could cause confusion, if not offend some subculture. But why do I go to so much trouble? Despite scathing comments I’ve made about Covid vaccination, I don’t get enough traffic to alert Google’s radar. So no worries about censorship. In fact, a style and/or content insufficiently reader-friendly could be understood as effective self-censorship.
The thing is, most bloggers aren’t thinkers, but just recycle ideas and opinions, the way most of us share bacteria and viruses: mindlessly, oblivious to the mechanics of transmission. Blithely trusting pet sources – Wikipedia, the Monthly, the Guardian, Telegram chat groups, or erudite Substack subversives, they swerve with their herd or vibe with their tribe. Meanwhile, a few of us – or hordes? How would I know? – haunt the far periphery like wandering lepers of old. What does it take to come in from the cold? Maybe a more pressing need to be read than to follow a line of thought through on its own terms, unswayed by audience vagaries. But having many followers doesn’t make for a leader; it just keeps energy circulating, serving agendas set by Big Tech. Am I, too, responsible for recreating the monster? Introversion notwithstanding, I’m open to feedback…
This blog used to have at least four readers. But then one died (a brilliant comic whose emails I still miss), which left three, and recently, I know of just two. And this trend of what some might call diminishing returns is unusual. Most blogs accrue readers rather than lose them (financial metaphors intended). Though I do have a number of ‘followers’, most if not all might as well be bots, ‘liking’ or ‘following’ random blogs just to attract reciprocal traffic.
It’s not about content. These bloggers stay true to the zeitgeist, however false they seem to me, because its ethos is quantity, not quality: the defining characteristic of digital vs. analog culture, and a core theme of my posts for nearly 12 years. Meanwhile, it’s doubtful most others have reached the same conclusion. ‘Is/are reality/life/humans analog or digital?’ users ask Google. I want to believe they’re just testing its capacities; their queries can’t be serious. But here’s the thing; in tasting the ad-riddled fruit of the tree of knowledge, we humans have managed to banish ourselves from the garden without any help from God.
So, clearly, not engaging in shameless self-promotion is weird. Indeed, observing this virtual frenzy of mutual back-scratching (which only intensifies the itch) can give me the sense that I don’t exist in this dimension. Technology and its binary code, operational and social, strike me as incomprehensibly dense, a map vast enough to be mistaken for territory (minus sensory pleasures). Dense as in heavy, gross, impenetrable, slow, obtuse, unsubtle.
At 23, I underwent what some might call a ‘psychotic breakdown’: psychosis meaning loss of contact with external reality; breakdown meaning collapse. Manifestations of this unstable yet persistent state included the impression that others could read my mind from a distance, and – paradoxically – the sense that at times I became invisible.
Delusional? I’ll admit that, taken literally, such perceptions challenge consensus reality. And yet they make metaphorical sense. Sometimes, decades later, as I walk the local coastal path – in broad daylight, keeping left – people walking the other way bump into me. Why not step aside just before we collide? Well, it’s fun to pivot at the instant of contact and watch them bounce off. Sorry, most of them say, looking stunned – proof that I’m not invisible. But by staring at a phone as you walk, you can lose contact with external reality. As for others reading my mind from a distance, though some of the spam in my inbox seems uncannily related to the content of recent personal emails, it couldn’t be further from what I’m thinking.
Last week, a friend and I attended a public talk: ‘Ethics in the Attention Economy’ by former Google strategist turned tech ethicist, Dr James Williams. My friend, a brilliant writer and artist, had just scored a job in online marketing. Did we learn anything? Uh, no. Williams is a well-educated and likeable human sedative, whose highly respectable role appears overwhelmingly to be to reassure the bourgeoisie dependent on Big Tech for their income, social life or dopamine fix that they needn’t fret about what device usage is doing to their neurons; Williams and his ilk hope to make technology safer for us. He also offers life hacks for tech users, assuming we’re all similarly immersed in the digital/virtual world. During the Q&A, I considered grabbing the mic to tell Dr W I don’t own a mobile phone. But who cares about life forms on the brink of extinction?
From his award-winning book, Stand Out of Our Light (2018), a pre-read for Princeton: ‘At its best, technology opens our doors of perception, inspires awe and wonder in us, and creates sympathy between us.’ If that’s the very best it can do, well hey – we can get that from meditation, spending time in nature, or reading great fiction.