Resisting digital manipulation

By: Susan Rushton
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Decades ago, my AJ friend and coworker Ms. Janis Dice and I discussed advertising, the fancy new ways technology had to catch us, and how uneasy I felt being spied on and followed and labeled.
Well yes, she said, and by her tone I knew she was playing devil’s advocate. But is it really a bad thing if you’re looking for, oh, colored chalk, and some company that manufactures colored chalk is looking for a customer, and there’s a handy-dandy way to connect you?

Hmm, I said.

Or what if you’re looking for an extra-wide pair of shoes? What if a company has exactly what you’re looking for — isn’t connecting the two of you a good thing? You get what you want, and the company gets a customer. You both save time, and you both end up happy. What’s the matter with that?

Yes, I said. But I hate being sold to. It feels as if I’ve been hooked and landed. As if they’ve won and I’ve lost.

And we smiled at each other and got back to work.

As I said, this was years ago. Yes, we worked on computers, such as they were. But this was long before Facebook and Twitter, before Google and Yahoo. Then, it was much more difficult to be parsed and analyzed and followed and caught and landed. But still possible.

Now it’s simple, if you spend any time online. Companies know who you are and what you prefer and how to catch your eye. Make a call to an airline or rent a car or buy a baseball ticket and instantly you get encouragement to do more of the same. Rumors abound that Siri and Alexa and other “intelligent personal assistants” are always listening and recording. And if someone’s always listening, is someone always watching? Sure, why not?

And so what, Susan? Doesn’t this just ensure that people can find what they want more efficiently, and those looking for potential customers can find them more efficiently? I mean, we’re a capitalist society — isn’t this good for business?

Yeah, well, maybe. Maybe not. I don’t care. I get tired of these constant, pushy sales pitches in my face. I work hard to ignore them, I don’t mind telling you. And I hate having to work this hard.
And now there’s another way technology is forcing me to work hard. I say now — actually it seems to have been moving in this direction for a while. And we all know it, I imagine.

For decades those who know how have had the capability to drop anyone into a photo, alter the lighting, change someone’s clothes, have two people who have never met or been in the same room together shaking hands and laughing.

Now, apparently, the technology has become so sophisticated that the same thing is possible with moving and speaking digital images. And soon we’ll be able to take a clip of a politician saying one thing and change it to them saying something else. And it’ll be seamless, impossible for someone like me (or you, or other voters) to tell whether these words really came out of that person’s mouth.

On NPR last Wednesday, I heard a piece on “Radio Lab” about how sophisticated those techniques — and the people capable of manipulating those images — have become.

Hey, you nefarious character behind the scenes of a political battle! Want to make it look and sound as if the politician you want to defeat insulted veterans or women or cops or people who live in Tulsa? While the process of digital manipulation isn’t simple or seamless yet, it’s getting there quickly.

As I listened to this piece and got more and more itchy, I thought gee whiz, the people telling me this think this news is awful, why are they publicizing it? It’s almost as if they’re telling me how to do this myself. Or telling others how to do it. They even provided a website for more information and a sample:

But then I realized: They were warning me. This was one of several alerts I’ve heard lately, encouraging me to wise up and be skeptical of everything I see and hear in this technologically sophisticated-and-rapidly-getting-more-sophisticated information age.

Don’t be a guinea pig, don’t be a sucker, they said. Identifying authenticity online is hard and it’s getting harder, they said. Skepticism is a good thing, they said.

And maybe it’s good that we’re being trained to distrust. Maybe, as a result, we’ll become more willing to talk to people face to face, to go to the source rather than depend on those talking heads. Maybe we’ll turn our backs on the unnerving possibilities of digital manipulation. Maybe we’ll learn to value — and demand — the real thing, rather than the digital image of the real thing.

Or what appears to be the digital image of the real thing.

By the way: Before you confront me, I want you to know that the picture of me up there is five years old. I don’t look exactly like that anymore. As you know if we’ve ever talked face to face — something I always encourage.

Susan Rushton’s opinion column appears regularly in the Auburn Journal. Her email address is