Latest 3 Things

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

3 Bad Suggestions

The world is full of bad advice. No matter where you live, or when you lived, there have always been hosts of people willing to peddle you their suggestions, recommendations and pitches. For the most part, unsolicited advice is usually bad, though not always ill-intended. In fact, most advice that is offered to us is meant to be helpful. It is quintessentially human to try and help other learn from our experiences - especially when we learn their experiences are much like our own. Up until recently, however, this entire process of finding out about someone and/or what they're going through, applying to your own knowledge/experience and coming up with advice/suggestions/etc. was something only accomplished by humans. With the advent of "smarter" technologies, however, algorithms have been developed that scour through the data trails we leave behind to provide us automated advice and computer-generated personal suggestions for everything from spelling to shopping. Between these suggestion machines and good, old-fashioned hard selling, advice is worse now than it's ever been - here are the 3 worst suggestions I'm getting:

1. A Good You-Google-izer. Google revolutionized the way the internet services are paid for. By making the vast majority of its technologies free to the end user, and providing businesses tools to access those users is a targeted fashion at a premium price, Google generated the dominant model for web-portal success. As they have grown, they have integrated this technology into nearly every facet of internet life - most successfully, perhaps, into e-mail - with my beloved Gmail. Gmail changed the way I looked at e-mail. Made it easier to use, and useful as a life archive of sorts, where you would never need to delete old e-mail. Instead you'd simply put it away into a search-able library - there to remain forever more. Though it was completely free, I paid for this new luxury by suffering a few targeted advertisements in mostly unobtrusive places. But, what made these ads unavoidable was not how well they had picked out what to peddle to me, but rather how poorly. For example, the following items have been hocked to me by my Gmail account: cut rate mammograms, vegetarian cookbooks, Botox training courses, and discount flights to Haiti. More than the inanity of these ideas, these ads make me wonder just what the hell is in my e-mail to make it seem like I might actually buy any of them. For all its global power and forward thinking, the world's most advanced search engine has looked through over six years of my correspondence and determined that I'm a health-obsessed middle-aged woman who may be a fugitive from the law. No wonder Facebook is kicking their ass.

2. Checking Ahead. I remember when I first saw the iPhone keyboard on its screen and thinking to myself, "Wow, that's going to be hard to type on" - and to be certain, it was. But thankfully, Apple worked with Google (see item 1, above) to help and develop an "intelligent" spell checker that would work in real-time as you typed on their tiny on-screen keyboard to determine what you meant as opposed to what your fat, clumsy fingers actually wrote. It accomplishes this by using (a) an existing dictionary, (b) the names in your Contacts list, and (c) the words you type and "teach it" as you use the keyboard. For the most part, it's an extraordinarily useful too. However, through some combination of the aforementioned sources, it has learned to generate some very interesting spelling "suggestions": i.e. every time I try to type "silly"; my iPhone recommends "silky" - trust me, this can make an otherwise innocuous e-mail very creepy (who even says "silky" anymore?); any time I do actually try to use a little foul language, my phone seems bent on Disney-fying my diatribe - it's hard to be taken seriously when your messages are punctuated with "duck", "shot" and "motorscooters"; and if capitalize anything it assumes that it's a proper noun and leaves it be - which is making the fact that I still can't reliably spell "Wednesday" a major source of embarrassment. But to its credit, this spell checker does know the word "y'all" - which makes me wonder just how California these Google and Apple folks are, after all.

3. I've Never Liked To Try. There was a time when the only gainful employment available to me was in fast food. As a teenager, I needed a job (a prerequisite for the car I so desperately desired), and I was neither attractive, charismatic or well-connected enough to land something posh. So, rather than try and fight the inevitable, I put in an application and received employment at the local McDonald's. As a result, I was introduced to the "giving" side of the "suggestive sell" long before I ever received it. So, I knew that being greeted with a prospective purchase was a corporate ploy to get something out the door that we had too much of, or that wasn't selling well, and consequently, have never purchased something so suggested to me. In fact, if the item I was looking to consume was suggested to me, I would actually avoid buying it and get something else. I've never even known anyone who has gone to a fast food restaurant, and decided to purchase an item that was suggested to them by their "server". But apparently this technique is effective enough to have remained in place over the past twenty years (at least). I expect that if you're weakly constituted enough to regularly consume fast food - you might be the sort of person that would decide that in addition to the gut rot you're purchasing, that you'd also like the fat and terribleness that has been recommended by the fast food expert now facing you. But take it from an "inside man" - this is one suggestion you should never take.

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These days, I find myself giving more advice than I receive; which is startling because as a newly minted member of the 35-49 demographic, I've got a whole new group of people who are dying to give me their professional opinion (real estate agents, stock brokers, life insurance agents, etc.). But nevertheless, I have more people in my charge than ever before, and for the past five years, a license which leads them to believe that my advice actually carries some weight/expertise with it. It's a heady thing to give advice - especially when you know it will be heeded. Which makes the current trend of either ill-considered, profit-motivated, or computer-generated advice all the more surprising. For my part, I'll stick with the old school version, both with the advice I give, and the advice I take. It may not be any safer, but at least it has less calories.


Samantha Smith said...

Well written! I've thoroughly enjoyed reading each installment of your "Three Things Project". However, this is the first one that I definitely needed to comment on. Although it has nothing to do with the subject, I feel the need to thank you for getting that job at McDonald's. It allowed you to get the car that drove me so many places that I needed to go when I was too young to have a driver's license, or even a job for that matter. I vaguely remember you picking me up in that car to "run away from home" when I was 14. Thanks Glenn. I owe you a great deal of gratitude for your service in the fast food industry, and am proud of how far you've come. ;)

Anonymous said...

People don't suggest much to me. I'm kinda stubborn ;-)
I always enjoy your 3 things though and I wanted you to know I'm reading!

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