When Seamas O’Reilly responded to all his emails for a week using only Smart Reply, our columnist’s messages suddenly became spookily jaunty. Did his friends spot the difference?
The philosopher Jeremy Bentham was famed for his panopticon, a hypothetical circular prison that was designed in such a way that its inmates never knew whether or not they were being observed. This would, his theory went, encourage prisoners to presume they were always being watched, and thus act accordingly. No true version of the prison was ever really built, and the word itself only now lives on due to its prodigious utility within breathless op-eds about surveillance culture, mostly written by people who’ve already overused references to Orwell and Kafka.
The genius of today’s boring dystopia has been to offer this surveillance as a feature, not a bug; to cast that all-seeing-eye not as a malevolent shadowy jailer, but as the world’s most boring personal assistant. Nowhere is this truer than with Gmail smart replies, the pocket panopticon that now resides in every inbox. Not only can it see what you’ve already read and written, it has some great ideas on how to make your next contribution, too. But how well does it really know us? How deeply does its unsleeping, lidless eye scan our thoughts and deeds? And could I use this information, the knowledge of a god, to create a stronger, better, smarter me? Seeking answers, I stopped resisting and spent an entire week surrendering to its every whim.