Bless Me Father

Catholics learn about the confessional early on in life. A small, dark booth, where a wooden trellis stands between you and absolution, no matter how badly you’ve sinned.

Since the priest has taken a vow of secrecy, sinners normally tell the truth—it’s liberating to share a dark secret, knowing you will be forgiven by someone who remains in the shadows forever—and who, technically, cannot recognize you.

No other religion boasts this formula—in both Islam and Judaism, you confess only to god. A Muslim must ‘keep his sins to himself, because from the tawhidi, or monotheistic, standpoint, the sole cause and reason behind everything in this world is Allah.’

Luther, Calvin, and others also did away with confession in Christian practice—like effigies of saints, it was considered a human perversion rather than a divine virtue.

So we lie. To colleagues and family, to strangers and spouses—when it comes to the crunch, whether it’s a little white lie, or a great big whopper, we fib.

And we’ve built up a euphemistic arsenal in the process—we’re economical with the truth, out of sight out of mind, and what you don’t know can’t hurt you.

But another confessional has sprouted up in digiland. The digital disconnect is remarkable, and people say things to machines which they would never confess to each other—more importantly, they tell the truth, and the machine files it away for future reference.

Your questions are a microcosm of your anxieties and desires, and an analysis of common requests speaks volumes about general views and trends. I’m currently in Canada, and if you Google ‘Why does Trump’, the terminations are:

…want to build a wall
…hate Canada
…like Russia

But if you write ‘My husband wants me to’ Google says:

…cheat
…lose weight
…sleep with another man

and Bing (But It’s Not Google) says:

…wait to get baptized
…praise him for chores

However, the same question in Google India elicits:

…breastfeed him

A recent book called ‘Everybody lies’ reports that men often search on how to get their partner to give them oral sex, but equally often (and ten times more bizarre) on how to give themselves oral sex—not sure how to address that one—maybe Pilates?

But the most fascinating part of this digital prelate is that people use it to describe moods and situations: I’m sad, I’m drunk… in the hope of finding like-minded brethren.

‘I’m divorced’ brings up ‘now what’, ‘and want to remarry’, ‘and depressed’ on Google. Microsoft’s Bing, always with a more corporate bent, brings up ‘am I entitled to any benefits’

Of course you can reach broad conclusions about particular countries and nationalities by looking for specific trends, but Big Data lets you do something far more worrying: drill down to the proclivities of a particular person, by mining their search list.

Now that my children’s book, Folk Tales for Future Dreamers, is published, and I’ve returned to the Hourglass, it’s worth quoting a few lines from the current draft.

Tommy’s ninth grade teacher, Mr. Medway, had taught the boy to program computer code. For that, the first challenge was to actually get a computer. In the New Society, as President Klomp often tweeted, Digital Means Democracy.

In practice, that meant everyone had a smartphone, a smart TV, and a tablet. Unlike the old machines Tommy saw on the history channel, people at their desks staring at terminals, the new devices were made by only three companies—one in the US, one in Asia, and one in Europe. Sure, there were lots of brands, but in the end it was just like pizza—one base, different toppings.

Society was totally connected to the cloud, as the internet was now called. Social networks were many and varied, people freely shared personal info, often including intimate pictures with friends and family, and because everything was geolocated and timestamped, the cloud knew who did what, where, and when.

It was even possible, Mr. Medway said, to know why, since the major search engine linked a person’s choices with those of others around him—the end of a relationship, a faraway vacation, or a sudden interest in fertilizer manufacture could be dissected using this new tool.

Although The Hourglass is set a couple of years from today, all this profiling is occurring right now, on a cloud near you. President Klomp got his name when Trump was still  running for office, and although the usual disclaimer applies (similarity with any person, living or dead, is pure coincidence), Klomp can be pretty trumpy, and is set to play a major part in the book—bigly.

I’ll be heading south soon to the United States, and I’m keen to revisit some of the search terms above and play spot the difference.

As I leave this peaceful and hospitable land, my thoughts are with the good people of Canada, incensed with the rejection of the Paris Agreement by the self-titled President of Pittsburgh, or would that be the Czar of Cleveland?

Canadian heavy industry has already been placed at a strong disadvantage because of emissions control—may the north winds blow.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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