Instagram took a while to accept that I was really over my ex. He had just looked at a photo I’d posted and, for the first time in months, it didn’t bring him to the top of its list of people who’d seen it.
His name, with its too-familiar brown-blue icon, was some spots down now, below colleagues and cousins. Up near the top of the list, two new circles had been promoted – an old friend whose DMs were newly laden with fire emojis; a woman I’d followed after some promising banter on Hinge. Finally, I thought. It’s official. I must really have moved on, now that the algorithm knows I’ve moved on.
My phone screen, that trusty dark mirror, reflects me in less subtle ways too. Zomato knows I like to order momos to my best friend’s home and ice-cream to my ex’s. My YouTube recommendations give away how much I’m fixating on improved sleep habits. One app tells me I’m dehydrated, another that my period starts tomorrow, a third lists all the books I’ve read this year and, more sassily, which ones I’ve abandoned.
We’ve never been better equipped to live out the Delphic maxim, “Know Thyself”. All the knowledge about our selves is right there, painstakingly inventoried. The scope of our personhood is mapped out in zeros and ones on Silicon Valley servers. Billions of us turn to our phones to mediate all sorts of impulses – to eat, read, masturbate, travel, call our moms, look up symptoms – and in turn, those apps track our instincts rigorously. Including the searches on Incognito Mode. Including the 3am texts. For our every double-tap, scroll, and swipe, the code whirrs and comes to know us a bit better, to reflect us with increasing precision.
Depending on who’s mined them, the secrets we reveal in our online behaviour are used to hook us, advertise to us, radicalise us, or arrest us. If we’re lucky, we’ll just be played our new favourite song on Spotify and be served the perfect New Years’ Eve dress in an Instagram ad for a Chinese e-commerce site. If we’re not – who knows? Maybe we’ll find that living in a 24/7 state of self-surveillance, being fed hyper-personalised content tailored to ignite unspoken desires turns us into perfect consumers and perennially discontented people.
I try not to think too much about it. I fail. I’m not alone in being obsessed. Which of us now hasn’t wondered if our TVs and phones are listening to us? (How else did Facebook know to toss up a blender ad the same week the mixie broke?)
“The Algorithms” are starting to feel god-like – disembodied forces that we don’t see or understand, but which we know we’re being watched and shaped by. For our part, we do our best to win their favour. Across political party offices, ad agencies, and newsrooms, the best minds are brainstorming, day in and out, how to “trend”. Influencers are swapping tips at parties like superstitions. I know because I’ve done it.
Still, there are things the algorithms don’t know. A few weeks ago, swiping my emptiness left and right on Hinge, my chest pulled into itself as a familiar face showed up. It was a photo I had taken. Shouldn’t the app have known? That we’d matched once before, exchanged numbers, texted through his week at a friend’s farmhouse in Coorg, then met once, met twice, met every day for weeks, grown close over gin & tonics until we had a favourite Bandra bar where the waiters knew to lead us to our favourite table? That we’d met one another’s families, left toothbrushes and chargers at one another’s homes, drunkenly glimpsed potential forevers and Swiggy’d cheap burgers for the hangover? That two years went by before we found ourselves snapping more, texting our exes while the other slept, scrolling silently in the blue blaze of our respective screens while our g&ts sweated between us? Hinge doesn’t know that one day in February we fought all night and knew by sunrise that we’d break up. All it knows is that we are “Most Compatible”. I take a screenshot and WhatsApp it to him with a “LOL”. He LOLs back. We remain broken up. It’s a rare moment of triumph over the all-seeing, all-knowing algorithms. It feels … really shitty.
We live among all sorts of new heartaches and amusements, born of code getting minor details about us wrong. A Facebook ‘friend-versary’ video for a friend who’s no longer alive. Engagement photoshoots on your Discover tab when you’ve just begun to question monogamy. Ads for baby shoes after a miscarriage.
I’m trying to find some solace in these moments of algorithmic lapse. It’s the internet revealing that it can’t (yet) know us, provide for us, like other people do. It can’t account for the breadth of our hopes and madnesses. What would be really terrifying, I think, is if the algorithms never messed up. If we reached full predictability, repeating patterns, never changing.
In a data swarm where nearly every recommendation, every auto-play, is too close to perfect, the glitches are a reminder that we can’t be flattened into a composite of things we’ve liked and said before. We are more than a sum of the people we’ve already been, ever susceptible to surprising ourselves. It’s nice to be reminded that there’s something persistently complex about being a person, still, something un-mappable in zeros and ones – the unbearably human possibility of meeting Mr Most Compatible, running it all to the ground, learning, moving on.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.