Essay: No More Cookies, Grandma! (Frank Talks to the Robots 2.0) | Humor | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Essay: No More Cookies, Grandma! (Frank Talks to the Robots 2.0)

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Published October 19, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


SARAH CRONIN
  • Sarah Cronin

I'm not a paranoid kind of person, not by modern standards, anyway. But I feel like I'm being watched a lot. Not by master manipulators from the CIA or the New World Order (which seems pretty chaotic, TBH); this is more like a well-meaning grandma who reads the computer screen over my shoulder and keeps interrupting me with clueless suggestions.

"Would you like to see Kim Kardashian's kitchen? A monkey riding a pig? How about Roblox? That's a fun game. Did you mean New England Parrots?"

No, MeeMaw. I'm fine! Leave me alone, I know what I'm doing!

The thing about this invisible weird grandma who lives in my computer — I'm not crazy, I tell you — is that she has a bit of an edge. She knows all about the most sordid scandals and loves videos of people fistfighting and getting injured. If I read a satisfyingly righteous rant about politics, she offers me an even angrier one.

Plus, she gets inappropriately (and inaccurately) personal real quick. Do I have spider veins? Hemorrhoids? Erectile dysfunction? FUNGUS UNDER MY TOENAILS?!?!?!?

No! I don't ... think I do. Let's just pull a sock off and ... Eww! What the hell is that? Dammit! See?

With a printed newspaper or a regular TV show, I know some of the ads are for other people, so I don't take them personally. But when you're being tracked by cookies and databases, and the computer serves up ads for you personally, every suggestion is kind of an accusation.

Sometimes the computer algorithms just seem to be toying with me. I'll google something really obscure, like "Sasanian coinage." (Don't ask.) And it won't find anything, but then it asks, "Did you mean 'Sassy koinonia'?" So I click that, and it says, "I never heard of that either." So why did you suggest it if you've never heard of it? Is computer-grandma getting dotty?

It creeps me out sometimes, this feeling of being watched all the time, so I checked in with my buddy Frank. He's not a super big computer guy, and he's on the older side, but he's still pretty sharp. The last time we talked ("NiFTy but Cryptic," March 30, 2022), he explained why he didn't trust cryptocurrency and NFTs. They tanked about a week later.

Frank isn't against technology, exactly. He has a ham radio setup in his attic, uses a regular smartphone, follows Front Porch Forum and replies to emails sometimes — without ever using ALL CAPS. But he's never going to be the first to buy some new gadget. Way too expensive, for one thing.

"You can't avoid computers for some things," he told me. "But for opinions about movies and politics and stuff, I ask my neighbors 'cause I know who I can trust. I figure a lot of these websites are for city folks who don't know who to ask."

That made me laugh. "I think people in big cities have a lot more neighbors than we do," I replied.

Frank shook his head.

"Naw, they just live near a lot of people. If you don't talk to someone, they're not really your neighbor, are they? I hear you on those stupid suggestions, though. Why would I wanna hear some gossip about BTS? That's this Korean music group," he explained.

"Yeah, I know who BTS is, thanks. K-pop's not your kind of music, huh?" I teased. (Frank listens to a lot of bluegrass.)

"Actually, I kind of like that band," he said. "My granddaughter's crazy about 'em, so I have to hear it a lot. But I could give a rat's ass what Jungkook had for breakfast. Even if he is the cutest." There was an awkward pause. "So I hear."

Frank surprises me sometimes. He continued.

"I don't mind the dumb suggestions 'cause I see what they're trying to do. What I worry about is the good suggestions I didn't notice, and the things I never see at all."

I was confused. "What do you mean?"

"Did you hear about this new Buddhist 'end-of-the-world' ska music?" Frank asked. He pronounced "ska" like "scat" but without the T.

"No! What? Is that real?"

"I dunno, made it up. But it could be. We'll never know 'cause it's not for us."

He's right about that. I think ska's really boring. I thought about Dan, a MAGA guy I know. He's always talking about weird-sounding news stories that I've never heard a peep about and using them as "evidence." I don't know how to respond. Is he sheltered from reality? Or am I? Or both of us?

Frank brought up a discussion we've had before, about how stupid I was to get my Alexa smart speaker. I don't really see it that way, but he's got an argument.

"If the government tried to put a microphone in everybody's house, we'd have a revolution," Frank said. "But call it convenient, and people pay their own goddamned money to install a bug in their own goddamned house!"

"Look," I said, "I really don't think they could be listening in to everybody's home without permission."

"They have to be listening all the time. How else could it know when you say 'Alexa'?"

"OK, but they can't just make a database of everything you say, can they? Seems like that would be illegal."

"Unless you agreed to it to 'assure quality control' or whatnot," Frank said. "Bet you 50 bucks you didn't read all that fine print when you installed it."

No bet.

"Computers are OK," Frank went on, "but I like to get outside, touch dirt and plant some things and kill some other plants. It keeps me grounded."

Me, not so much. I figure we're all going to get grounded — permanently — soon enough. But that gave me a weird thought.

"You ever think about how weeds are like those bad computer suggestions, except nature sends them to us?"

Frank did not seem impressed. "You been to one of them new pot stores, ain't you?"

"No, I'm like that naturally. So, OK, what's your big solution to keeping nosy computers out of our lives?"

Frank just shrugged and invited me over to play some old songs on his porch. It sounded horrible, like a fight between a feral cat and a sickly raccoon, what with us yowling and slapping away at our cheap guitars, but it was fun anyhow. And best of all, no one else was listening, man or machine.

Mark Saltveit is the editor of the Palindromist Magazine, as well as a standup comedian and an author. He is based in Middlebury.