Listen, computers, stop trying to predict my needs

Every operating system and half the software I use wants to predict my needs. When I open up the browser on my phone, it has a links from other apps on the homepage. If I start typing something into the URL bar, I’ll see suggestions for what I might want. Sometimes, when I get into my car, my phone’s like, “oh hey bud, you usually open up the MUSIC app when you get in here, how about you do that again?” These little nudges, powered by machine learning, feel small now. But if they’re already mostly pointless and wrong, what’s next?

Welcome to the second blog I’m (apparently) writing as an old man yelling about algorithms (the first was about recommendation algorithms). The boring ones. Not the ones that are disrupting democracy. But the ones that are supposed to be making our lives easier.

Let’s start with with our phones, which have been attempting to predict our needs more and more with each little update. Most recently, in iOS 15, I’ve started getting notifications and auto-populated widgets attempting to suss out my needs, despite never enabling either of these features.

The first time I left the house after updating, my phone was so distraught about me not having my headphones with me that it sent me a repeating notification warning me that we (the headphones and I) had been separated. It took me a couple minutes to figure out why I was getting this notification and how to disable it. I left the house without my headphones because I didn’t need my headphones. It wasn’t all that complicated a reason. I do it all the time.

On that same trip, the mapping app kept suggesting my house as my next destination, as though it had grown anxious being apart from the headphones. Or perhaps it knew something I didn’t know. Or maybe, because there’s been a pandemic for nearly two years, my usual routine of leaving the house, going one place, then going back home, was starting to show.

Another example, that was as obnoxious (for me, someone who prefers my home screens bland and without feeling) was the sudden appearance of random app widgets on my home screen, cycling through different screens trying to figure out what I wanted. “When you open this app,” my phone wanted me to know, “You sometimes also open this app.” Wow, what a revelation.

Our phones, more than any other device we own, “know” the most about our daily habits. So it’s not surprising it’s also the place where we might notice it trying to predict our needs. It frames this as being useful, “You need to leave for that meeting right now, buddy, traffic’s bad,” or “Look out, rain’s in the forecast today, the day you usually go on a bike ride,” but I’ve become more mindful of how this strips away my agency for very little return. I can quite easily look at both the weather and traffic, after all.

But while nudging behavior is annoying, adopting the worldview that our gadgets know better than us is where it starts to become problematic. And if we give even an inch of trust to a company, it will exploit that to sell us something.

Recently there was a minor privacy kerfuffle over the web browser, Firefox, cramming ads into the URL suggestion bar, essentially breaking a secret and sacred pact about intentionality. The URL bar, like the blank search bar in my mapping app, is a place where I have the agency to decide where I want to go, both figuratively and literally. To the grocery store or a specific web address. It’s my space, and there’s no room for ads here.

Our address bars have had these types of subtle suggestions for a while, and although Firefox pushing an ad into the space was a particular brand of boneheaded, every other browser pushes us to a specific address with suggestions, by preloading the top hit, or autocomplete. All to save us milliseconds in our web searches.

As an experiment—to figure out what, I don’t know, exactly—I disabled all the autocomplete features in my browser. No preloading sites. No completing what I type. Nothing. Just a blank URL bar and my dreams. I was surprised at how freeing this was. And how by creating this minor little roadblock, I regained a sense of agency over my own actions. No longer could I go to Twitter by just typing “Tw.” I had to type the whole thing. T-w-i-t-t-e-r-.-c-do I really want to go there?

Disabling the predictive tech in my iPhone was a little harder. Do I disable Siri? That seems to do take care of some of it, but not all. And now my phone doesn’t read out text messages into my headphones, the one (only?) thing Siri does that I actually use. But then Safari has its own settings. Then there’s notifications, and Maps has its own set of options. Keeping it up with it all feels impossible.

These types of little patterns that our devices predict feel harmless, but as we grow used to them we’ll fail to notice where they are harmful. Do I really need my phone to shave off 10 seconds a day to increase productivity? Does my web browser really need to autofill what it thinks I want? What would I do with those precious seconds, if I gained them back? Probably not anything smart, I’d guess.

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