You Get to Keep the Tools!

Founded after World War I, the Cipher Bureau, aka the “Black Chamber” (after King Henry IV of France’s sixteenth-century letter-opening/resealing cabinet noir), was America’s first peacetime cryptanalysis (code-breaking) unit. In 1929, the government withdrew funding and the Bureau closed, in retrospect possibly assisting the Japanese in carrying out their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Then-Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson’s now-celebrated explanation for shutting down the unit was: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

Well, Mr. Stimson was certainly permitted his own definition of “gentlemen,” complete with behavioral parameters. But today’s online services, including Facebook, Google, Amazon, Yahoo, and Twitter, are all about reading our personal messages—and a lot more. Though privacy wonks and certain European countries bristle at the very notion of such intrusive behavior and point shaky fingers at endpoints such as totalitarian police states and black helicopters circling above FEMA-operated forced-labor camps, we do, after all, live in a capitalist society, and the goal these companies share is a long way down the shock spectrum from jackbooted thought police. According to revelations both recent and not-so-recent, government agencies do indeed want to stockpile everything there is to know about everyone there is. But the arguably un-gentlemanly corporations to whom we trade personal information in exchange for services want to profile our interests and shopping habits and market this information to advertisers—period. Oh, and possibly make our lives easier by blurring the boundary between conversation and access.

Here’s an illustration of the latter. This happened yesterday, and I’d like to know whether others find it creepy and intrusive, or the leading edge of something new and wonderful. Let me set the stage: I play free-form jazz once or twice a month with a somewhat changeable cast of characters. During my lunch break, I was doing a postmortem on the most recent jam with the group’s founder and bassist via Gmail. The drummer had been vehemently unimpressed with the latest guitar player we invited to join us, and the bassist and I were comparing notes. As a (fairly lame) joke, I sent a photo of Mike Keneally, a monster musician who was Frank Zappa’s last in a long line of discovered/nurtured prodigies, along with the note: “Maybe this guy would satisfy X’s requirements.”

Note: Mike is an even better guitar player than Michael J. Fox was in Back to the Future. Here he is:

The bassist replied, “Yeah, sure—I’ll ask him to play with us next time he’s in town. By the way, I just ordered Keneally’s Wing Beat Elastic; it’s a remix album of Wing Beat Fantastic that includes some demos (Andy Partridge sings on one) and a bunch of more guitar-oriented instrumental versions of stuff from the album.”

All well and good. Walking home later, I pulled out my Android phone and punched up the confusingly named “Google Play Music All Access”—which, like the other players in the crowded field it recently joined, including Spotify, Rdio, and Pandora, costs about eight dollars a month and provides access to “millions” of tracks in all styles of music. The slight differentiating wrinkle here is that people like me have been uploading our personal CDs and, yes, downloads, to Google Play, at no charge, for something like a year now. The pay service uses that personal collection to help curate listening suggestions. Nice idea—no paradigm shift yet.

But the artwork that appeared when I opened the app was the cover of aforementioned Wing Beat Elastic! My ingrained old-hippie sensibility went immediately for “synchronicity,” or “kismet”—some sort of cosmic coincidence, by whatever name. Then I realized that this was a secondary release by a fairly obscure indie-label artist, unlikely to be widely promoted, and that my previous uploads to Google Play had included nothing by Mike Keneally, Frank Zappa, or even album collaborator Andy Partridge or his longtime band, XTC.

The only explanation was that the hive mind that is Google read my mail and cued up the album, just in case I’d want to listen to it later. In my book, this nearly passes the classic Turing test for artificial intelligence. Again: creepy or cool? Let’s extrapolate: Maybe someday Google (or Apple, or someone else) will see me approaching home, turn on the AC, and mix a margarita, just the way I like it; questions will be answered before I think to ask them; needs met before I realize anything’s lacking. So, do we welcome our new cybernetic overlords, or shed all electronics and run for the hills?

In the words of that bald, mustachioed TV spokesman urging couch potatoes to action in the old Apex Tech ads, “You have to make the call.” And, depending on your answer, I suppose you get to keep the tools as well.

Author: John Wehmeyer

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