Muffin It Up

Over the weekend I had a startling revelation about how the misperception of technology makes the ineffective seem deliberate.

On Saturday, I noticed an email in my spam folder that seemed almost identical to one I’d received and deleted on Friday. Obviously, I didn’t feel the need to read the same information twice but I didn’t think the sender should be potentially penalized with a spam report for an email I’d wanted to receive; so I marked it as not spam, then deleted it from my inbox a couple of minutes later. On Sunday, I discovered a third copy in my spam folder. Except—as you might of already guessed—it wasn’t a third copy: it was the same email; the first time I’d found it in my spam folder, I hadn’t noticed the date stamp was Friday.

I can see a possible benefit to my email provider assessing it as genuine when they delivered it, then reclassifying it as spam after I deleted it: if the automated check is borderline, use whether or not the user keeps it as a test of whether or not they wanted it. However, after I’ve specifically marked it “not spam” there is literally no need to guess whether or not it might be, so sending it to spam the second time I deleted it is a failure.

Of course, when I say my email provider, I don’t mean my email provider; I mean an algorithm. Can we imagine a human doing it? A colleague—out of genuine helpfulness—returns the file on your desk to the cabinet because they thought you’d finished with it; you get it out again and tell them you still need it; they nod, then—while you’re getting coffee—put it back in the cabinet because you might have finished with it now. There’d probably be a manager or Personnel involved fairly swiftly to have an off-the-record chat about not doing it.

The difference of course is that imagined colleague could change on their own. And intellectually we know the computer can’t. However, because the seeking of meaning is so deeply wired into our minds, we still feel the situation is the same. So, I experience the same unconscious flicker of carelessness or intent in my email provider that I’d experience if interacting with the “helpful” colleague.

Which isn’t the startling revelation: however, it is what triggered it.

Boris Johnson is a computer simulation of a politician.

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