I’ve been an advocate for technology most of my adult life. Some would go so far as to say I’m even a bit of a geek. Which is why I’m surprised to find myself writing about my newly-found luddite tendencies. In this modern-day version of David versus Goliath, I’m the underdog fighting in the digital arena against the Giant World of Algorithms.
It all started when I began receiving packages that were addressed to my neighbor on the side street across from my house. I’ve lived here over thirty years and never had this problem, so for the first few months, I simply walked the packages over to my neighbor’s house. But once Christmas came, the volume and frequency was ridiculous. Armed with only my human observations and deductive skills, I quickly figured out that DHL, FedEx and UPS were not the culprits. This battle appeared to be specific to Amazon Prime. (I’ll refrain from further commentary on how much my neighbors buy from Amazon…)
My conclusion was confirmed when I ran into a driver in the act of leaving a package. I escorted him to the corner street signs that clearly delineated my street from the side street and pointed to the correct address. In turn, he pointed to his Amazon GPS app which insisted my house was the right one. Thinking the matter closed because the algorithm is always right, he handed me the package and trundled off down the street in his truck. As I walked over to the neighbor’s house, I realized I had no idea how to battle something as gargantuan as the Amazon Prime GPS Algorithm, yet was determined to do just that.
First, I needed to refresh my understanding of what, exactly, an algorithm entailed. It is defined as a set of rules to be followed in calculations or problem-solving operations, especially by a computer. So, an algorithm solves problems. Boy howdy, I thought, do I need that in my life! I’ve got lots of problems that need to be solved, like the leaky faucet and broken door knob. Maybe I could get an algorithm to solve the problem of the deer eating all my plants in my front yard. (I’ll refrain from further commentary on other life problems I’d like solved…)
Seriously, I know when they go right, they’re seamless. They are the underpinnings that make my website visible to those who search for it. They tell Netflix to serve up binge-worthy shows until my eyeballs fall out. They allow shoes I never knew I needed to stalk me online until I finally give in and buy them. They are ubiquitous in our society and for the most part, they work well.
But when they go wrong, they can go way wrong.
Like when my ailing mother asked Alexa to play The Afterlife. (I’ll refrain from further commentary on her overly dramatic requests…) She’d been listening to Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole for a solid week and what she wanted was the Paul Simon song. Instead, Alexa’s algorithm served up the death metal band, Avenged Sevenfold, pounding out their Theme to the Afterlife. As the guitar shrieking, head banging screams from hell rang through the house, I laughed at how badly the algorithm had gone astray.
Now, as the packages continued to mount, I had a rogue algorithm that was not so amusing.
I decided to make a good old-fashioned sign; one that I taped to my front railing. It was, admittedly, a small sign and quickly got blown away in the rain and wind. Undeterred, my next sign was the size of flip chart paper and specifically addressed to “Amazon Prime Drivers” whereby I explained, very politely, the difference in the two addresses. I used bright colored markers to grab their attention and added a large arrow pointing to the correct house. This time, I taped it to the eaves with enough heavy-duty masking tape to withstand gale force winds and placed it strategically so that anyone coming up the steps had to duck or get hit in the head, maybe even risking a painful paper cut to their face. A true work of art, really. At last, I thought, as I went out to my yoga class, this will do it! I’ve won the battle with the Algorithm!
Alas, I was too optimistic. I arrived home to a new package directly under the sign.
Now, someone who believes computers will eventually run the world might have accepted this as their new reality. Someone who doesn’t come from stubborn German stock might have given up at this point. Someone with less scruples might have just kept all the packages for themselves. (I’ll refrain from further commentary on how many of my friends suggested this approach…) That someone wasn’t me. I had to believe my human creativity and determination could outsmart a computer algorithm. I was going to battle this Algorithm into submission if it killed me.
And then, Covid-19 hit. It’s been several weeks since we’ve been sheltering at home and my perspective, like so many others around the world, has changed. Maybe it’s the slower pace, maybe it’s the lack of human connection, maybe it’s our heightened sense of appreciating each moment . . . or maybe it was just sheer luck, but whatever it was, today I saw an Amazon Prime driver walk up my steps, stop and actually pause to read my sign! I felt like crazy Mrs. Kravitz from Bewitched, peering through the front window, so I waved to him with an apologetic shrug and sheepish grin. He started to laugh, pointed to my sign and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up. Then he took the package and headed across the street.
I’m going to take that as a victory for the human connection. Long live the Luddites of the world!