The other day I had an idea for a short story. It was about a fellow who develops the strange notion that the Internet is stalking him. I imagined that it would be somewhat of a morality lesson on artificial intelligence—or more accurately, perhaps, an amorality lesson.
As artificial intelligence has no morality.
But then I got bored. Besides, I just gave away the ending.
The question, however, kept nagging me. Are there people with paranoid schizophrenia out there who are convinced that the Internet is stalking them? I’m not talking about cyberchondria—the guy who does a Google search for “headache” and within a few minutes is pretty sure that he has a brain tumor. Nor am I talking about cyberstalking—that all-too-common use of the Internet to stalk or harass an individual or group. Nor am I talking about someone who may be alarmingly overconcerned about their Internet footprint, which to a less pathological degree is understandable and prudent.
I’m talking about someone for whom the Internet has taken on a role previously (and frequently) occupied by groups such as the CIA, military, or law enforcement. As in “The CIA is beaming thoughts into my brain.” The Internet as the clever and evil antagonist.
And then I remembered: the “Influencing Machine.”
The Influencing Machine. Since the advent of the Industrial Age, the Influencing Machine has been a common element among phenomena reported by those with paranoid schizophrenia. The first published picture drawn by a mental patient was of an Influencing Machine. The patient was James Tilly Matthew; the “doctor,” actually an apothecary, was John Haslam, who published the first recorded clinical description of an Influencing Machine, together with Matthew’s sketch, in the 1810 book, Illustrations of Madness. Matthew, who called himself “James, Absolute, Sole, Supreme, Sacred, Omni-Imperious, Arch-Grand, Arch-Sovereign, Arch-Emperor,” thought French agents had placed a magnet in his brain and were manipulating his mind. Matthew called his Influencing Machine the “Air-Loom.”
So, in the Information Age, of course there must be people with paranoid schizophrenia for whom the Internet is their Influencing Machine.
I proceeded to forget all about that story idea (the one about the Internet as stalker) until I was reminded of it the other day. And I was reminded of it because I noticed that the Internet was following me.
It was a subtle thing at first. I’ve noticed for a while now how many, many beautiful photos are available online. They are everywhere, literally. This planet. Other planets. This galaxy. Other galaxies. Everywhere you turn, beauty, as if every photographer were a gifted photographer, and every captured image was endowed with whatever it is that makes something beautiful. Landscapes, starscapes, SEMs, NASA’s Hubble and Kepler and the Large Hadron Collider folks, all snapping the beauty everywhere around us, inside us, inside our atoms to the limits of the known universe, everywhere.
So that happened. And then I noticed how interesting everything was. Everything I saw, everything I read, everywhere I looked, it was all so…interesting. The articles in the Windows 10 default news reader. The articles on Flipboard. The articles that come up when you open a new window using Microsoft Edge. The articles in many of the e-newsletters I receive.
Then it occurred to me: I told Flipboard what topics I’m interested in. I told Microsoft what topics I’m interested in. I subscribe to e-newsletters about subjects that interest me. Everything I see is interesting because that’s how I’ve filtered it! It’s not nearly so mysterious when you look at it that way.
Nonetheless, it concerns me. I’ve finally got just what I wanted: filtered news and images customized precisely to my taste and interests. That’s what this Internet stuff is all about, right?
I don’t know. Makes me uneasy, somehow. Too Big Brotherish. So I’ve modified a few of my settings and subscriptions so that I see something ugly now and then. Something that upsets me. Something that I hate to read, that makes my blood boil.
Everyone should seek to find balance in his life. So if you’re really loving everything you’re seeing on the Internet lately, ratchet up that old index of suspicion. Something may be terribly wrong. You may be missing all the ugliness and stupidity that provide seasoning to life—that make life truly interesting. Unless you’re seeing an Influencing Machine. Then you may have other problems.