Cross-Examining Coincidence in the Courtroom of Technology

So many readers sent in notes in reply to my last article that I thought something of a post-script was warranted. I must say, though, that I am so very pleased by the responses. It has been years since I’ve had as many replies, notes, and questions come in after publishing something. As a writer, what I really want is to engage with others around ideas. Writing, sometimes, is something of a surrogate for the kind of immediate discourse I want, but holed up here in the lockdown days of ’21, cannot have. And so, nothing could be worse than silence in response to something I write. A torrent of replies, on the other hand, even if each one was a correction, complaint, or criticism, is akin to winning the lottery!

In hindsight, the article feels like an unlikely favorite, let alone one that many people would read in full. I took a risk by using an already complicated narrative — recounting a pair of coincidences and examining the technological explanations for them — to explore a variety of winding tributaries, such as the history of spy craft, the nature of information itself, and even how information theory and ontology interrelate. Any sane editor would send such a thing back and demand I cut 2/3 of the subject matter and focus on just one thing. And also to never use the word ontology in anything written for a real person. Since I’m my own editor, I get to do whatever I like and suffer the consequences, such as they may be.

This time around, none of the replies was negative, though each one posited a unique take on what the heck is going on when a strange, technological coincidence pops up. I’d like to share a few of those with you and provide some thoughts in response.

First, a friend wrote in the following:

…have you read the book The User Illusion? Some interesting theories in there that dovetail with your thinking, including the fascinating idea that our brains may leverage “exformation” to infer context and meaning around the very limited information we can transmit through language. Digital exformation is what’s being inhaled, crunched, and prioritized by so many companies and government systems to form inferences about our interests and actions, and then try to bend them…

I’m into this. I think a little background would be helpful:

Providing a useful illusion is what all interfaces do. They give us representations of data that are easier to interact with than they would be if depicted in their most basic form. Even the “simplest” interface, like a command line, is a form of user illusion. It gives you a blinking symbol to indicate where you can type, it makes use of a command-based language that is understood by the user and the machine, and it carries that language by way of visual text-based characters, each of which has an understood meaning. It creates the illusion of a form of communication between person and machine. Of course, the notion of an illusion is much easier to understand when we think about the computer “desktop.” As a convention of organization for information, the desktop is a predominantly visual illusion that allows us to pick things up, move them around, and organize them as if they were physical objects. Regardless of how skeuomorphic the desktop interface — how much it has been designed to look like it has physical properties — or how “flat” it is (think TRON: Legacy), it’s all a user illusion.

Where things gets interesting (and relevant to the article I wrote) is when we think of the mind itself — or consciousness — as a possible user illusion. That is what Tor Nørretranders book is about. I haven’t read it (I intend to now) but I am familiar with this line of thinking. It is highly dependent upon the assumption that consciousness is a manifestation of the brain, rather than a phenomenon that exists apart from biology (though it is experienced by living creatures through the limits of biological functions). Because the brain produces a conscious experience through its sensory input, there is not only latency — a delay between the input and the experience — but also an incomplete representation of reality. In other words, the brain processes what it can, but likely cannot process everything. That means there are theoretical aspects of reality un-sensed and unknown to us. This is what Nørretranders refers to as “exformation.”

I actually think this is a good idea! And I think so because it works both for materialist presuppositions (biology is all there is; consciousness is a product of the brain) and mind-body dualist ones (biology is not all there is; consciousness exists apart from the brain). In both views, consciousness is subject to the limitations of biological functions. From my point of view as someone persuaded that consciousness is not all there is, the brain focuses consciousness that would otherwise be more “expansive” outside of the brain (there are many phenomena and studies suggesting this, if not even more definitive).

What’s more curious to me is whether “exformation” is, by its nature, completely out of reach of embrained consciousness, or whether there is some kind of seepage — perhaps some kind of sub-perception or osmosis. After all, this theory was invoked by a reader as a means of offering a possible explanation for coincidences! If we do explore “exformation” as the connection between coincidental events, so too might it be an explanation for all kinds of extrasensory perceptions, like precognition and other parapsychological phenomena.

Another friend wrote:

…I think the (often correct) suspicion that systems are listening to us is compounded by the frequency effect

I think that’s right. I mentioned that one of my first thoughts when Bel Vita ads appeared in my Twitter timeline is that perhaps I only started noticing them once my brother introduced me to the brand. That’s the frequency effect in a nutshell: that the mind filters or prefers information based upon recognition. We’ve all experienced this. I once knew a woman who believed that God made sticks fall on top of one another in a cross formation as a way of reminding people of his existence. Every time she saw two sticks overlapping on the sidewalk was like a small miracle to her. And you can bet she started seeing stick crosses more and more. So did I!

I also suggested that ad network processing could identify known customers or “brand ambassadors” like my brother — people they know search for and buy certain products — and triangulate their connections to identify consumers who don’t buy them and show ads when those people interact. That’s a method that uses the frequency effect to their advantage. The value of an advertisement is much higher if the audience is primed, so they’re betting on the brand ambassadors exposing the prospective customers to their products.

Or maybe they are just listening to our conversations. But the point is, they don’t have to be.

Picking up on the incredible complexity of ad networks, here’s what another friend had to say:

…I think the common understanding of the “product appears in the feed after talking about it” has a lot to do with credit purchase histories and location…Companies “have” data about the products we purchase via credit cards; ergo your brother has a profile that includes Bel Vita. Companies “know” where your brother lives and where he’s going. The intersection(s): You visit your brother and GPS fencing intersectsand/or, you follow or are followed by your brother on a social platform. Assuming you read/purchased a digital asset RE: Michael Collins, I’d assume a similar vector there. Big Data is BIG. You bought a book. It has names in it. Those names are in a database somewhere and your “shadow profile” just got “tagged” with all those names via a purchase…

In most cases, I think this friend is also right. The bigness of big data certainly has explanatory power over most of our daily “synchronicities.” That’s likely the case with the Bel Vita anecdote. Triangulation is relatively easy at this point. We weren’t at either of our homes (this was when we were on vacation a couple of years ago), nor does my brother follow me on Twitter (he’s more of a FB guy), but neither of those things are necessary for an ad network to intentionally show me an ad for a product my brother is enthusiastic about in a context most likely to reach me when I am near him.

But the Michael Collins example still puzzles me. I don’t find the same invocation of big data as satisfying here. Ben suggests a “vector” tying my purchase of the book, it’s metadata, and content promotion that, I suppose, is cogent enough. In his view, anything I read will have information extracted from it (e.g. lists of names mentioned in the book) by central data repositories and shared to countless endpoints (e.g. YouTube) and so it’s just a matter of time before a video pops up directly related to a name in my book. OK, fair enough. This probably does happen. But there are some particulars that I think set my experience apart. To be fair, I didn’t include or examine them all in the original piece because I didn’t want to bog it down with unnecessary detail. But to defend my footing in the “it’s mysterious” camp on this one, I think a couple of them will be helpful.

The book I was listening to was Replay, by Ken Grimwood. It’s a story about a man who lives the last 25 years of his live over and over again. Because he remembers each version, he uses his knowledge of the future to live many different kinds of lives, some of which intersect with history in various ways. So, first, the names. In the same passage in which Michael Collins was mentioned, so were Richard Gordon, Thor Heyerdahl, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Earl Warren, and, throughout the rest of the book, many political figures and countless athletes.

To the best of my recollection, I haven’t had any content promoted to me related to any of the other names in that book. Not Heyerdahl, not Solzhenitsyn, not Warren — no one. The only digital connection I’ve noticed just happens to be to the one name that stood out to me in my listening — the one name I made a mental note to look up and learn more about later. To me, that’s interesting. If “big data” kept track of all the names mentioned in the book, why haven’t I seen the others pop up in my YouTube feed, too? Big Data — as big as it is — can’t know what I was thinking as I thought about Michael Collins as I ran home. Someone might say, well, maybe Big Data “knows” that Collins is the only name on the list you don’t know about because it has kept record of you searching for or viewing material related to all the others. Maybe. But as far as I remember, I haven’t searched for any of those other people, either. I don’t think there’s a digital trail that would connect me, either directly or by omission, to Collins or anyone else in the book.

But more importantly, why would Big Data just happen to do its magic on the exact same day that I heard the name Michael Collins mentioned in the book? This is the second detail that fascinates me — time is of the essence here.

The video I saw in my YouTube feed later that evening just happened to be about the one name that had stood out to me, the one name I wanted to look in to later, and showed up on the very same day I happened to hear that section. Not two days before, not a few days after. And most importantly, not the first time I listened to this same audiobook. This episode occurred as I neared the end of the book for the second time. The first time I listened to Replay was about a year ago. I don’t recall thinking much about Michael Collins that time, nor do I recall any strange content coincidences. It’s hard to make sense of that given the proposed logic of the Big Data explanation.

Look, I’m persuaded that Big Data is so big at this point that the ability for any of us to trace (or even understand) the connections between its information is likely beyond our comprehension. And I’m persuaded that the results of Big Data at work could easily appear or feel mysterious when they are not. The user illusion/exformation idea is relevant here: It’s totally reasonable to expect that the level of operative complexity — even though it has been set in motion by us — will exceed the level of perception and processing our brains can handle. We’re probably already at that point. And so correlations and coincidences are to be expected. But still, this episode just seems to be a bit further out than even that.

Finally, a friend ended their note to me with this:

…It’s been my experience that things in life never quite look the way we thought they would. You see it all the time in predictions of the future from the ’50s and ’60s… the technological advancement never quite grows in the direction people of the time assumed it would. Perhaps the singularity will be the same. We all just kind of assume it’ll look like cybernetics or the digitization of the human brain or something similar. But maybe it’ll be less interesting to look at - digital processes learning to think in a similar fashion as humans because of the sheer volume of data. There are, undoubtedly, reasons why the internet essentially read your mind that day. They are most likely scientific, measurable, and entirely banal when explained…

They may be right. Maybe there is no more mystery here than the unseen processing within the computer I’m using right now. Perhaps the ins and outs of Big Data really are that complex now that not only are they beyond me to track, but they’re beyond me to even comprehend. But I think about that idea — that maybe this future we inhabit simply doesn’t look like we envisioned the future would, so we miss the startling advancements in which we are steeped — and I wonder if it isn’t actually the other way around. What if, steeped in technology as we are, we have become unable to recognize aspects of nature that have been with us all along? What if mysterious coincidences are a manifestation of the way the natural world is — the way it is working all the time — that only manage to reach us through the noise of our making every now and then?

Written by Christopher Butler on January 27, 2021,   In Essays

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