This past week, I had a couple of weird experiences that made me feel like I was an extra in Poltergeist or Enemy of the State. And I thought I would share them with you because if I’m freaked out, I feel strongly that you should be as well. You’re welcome.
Let’s start with the Enemy of the State incident. I think it was Tuesday night — we spoke with our younger daughter and, as always, covered a lot of topics. She has a birthday coming up, so one of those topics, of course, was what she might want from us as a gift. She mentioned something and I suggested a place she might shop for the item and then we would pay her back whatever it cost. This is not a brand of store at which I usually shop, but it specializes in what she wanted, so…
Again, this was a phone conversation. We weren’t texting or emailing. There was no physical or electronic record of our discussion.
And yet, the next day, advertisements for the store in question, suddenly and for the first time ever, began to show up in the browser on my phone. It was so creepy. I mean, someone or something is obviously “listening” to our phone conversations. I don’t imagine there are people with earphones and recording equipment in the walls, or anything like that. But the same algorithms that track our internet browsing and then recommend products and stores, must track phone conversations for recognizable brands and the like. That’s the only explanation that makes any sense to me. As I say, creepy.
Moving on to Poltergeist…
This actually happened the same night — which I suppose is a little freaky in its own right.
Nancy and I had made stuffed poblano peppers for dinner, and we finish our preparation of them by placing them under the broiler in our oven, to melt and brown the cheese. So we did that and sat down to eat. After a few minutes, the oven started beeping at us. It was getting too hot.
Nancy, thinking we had forgotten to turn off the broiler, got up to do that. But it was already off. She pressed off again, just to make sure. The broiler remained on. We turned the broiler on, waited a few moments, then turned it off again. It remained on.
At this point, I went to the circuit breaker and switched the oven off from there. After a few seconds, I threw the breaker back on. The clock had reset, of course, and everything else seemed normal. But the broiler came on again. I turned the oven off at the fuse box again and left it that way. At this point, we were afraid to sleep in the house, or leave the house, with the oven plugged in.
Now, sometimes electric appliances and such will reset if left disconnected from their power supply for long enough. So the next day, I switched the fuse again, just to see. And, yes, the broiler turned on immediately, even though it was turned off.
We’re replacing the oven, though with supply-chain issues and such, we won’t have a new one for a few weeks.
But this was creepy as well, not to mention scary. And Nancy reminded me that a few weeks ago she was baking a loaf of bread and somehow the broiler turned on during the bake and burned the top of the loaf. It was almost like our oven was already in the process of developing a mind of its own.
We (and I mean Nancy and me, but also the collective “we” — society at large) are so dependent on technology that it’s easy to take that dependence for granted. Because it’s more than just a reliance on the machines, appliances, and devices we use on a daily basis. It’s also the trust we place in them.
Sure, we understand that we sacrifice a bit of our privacy when we go on line (or walk down a crowded city street in the age of facial-recognition), but I assume — foolishly, it would seem — that my phone calls are private. Not so long ago, an organization I worked for last year asked for my social security number, so they could issue me a 1099 form. I didn’t feel comfortable sending that information via email, so I asked for a number to call. Now, after the conversation with our daughter and what happened next, I wonder if I wasted my time and that of the person on the other end of the call.
We expect some things to need periodic repairs. When our cars break down, for instance, we’re annoyed, but not entirely shocked. These are inconveniences that we factor in when making a decision to buy. Cars need service periodically. Appliances need replacement parts and will fail now and then. But our oven’s odd behavior could have put our home at risk. It could have cost us our lives if it started a fire at the wrong time.
The creepiness of these incidents is, on one level, fun to talk about. I have shared the stories a few times already, and always they’re good for a laugh and jokes about the rise of our automated overlords. The fact is, though, there is something decidedly unfunny about all of this. Like so many things, it’s funny until we really think about it. And then it’s just disturbing.
Have a good week.