AI gift-giving, gossip surveillance and the tyranny of Spotify Wrapped towns
Am I a bad person for using a bot to help me find "thoughtful" presents?
Before we begin: This essay grew out of a freelance story about people who use generative AI to manage their household obligations. If you are one such person, I’m still working on the story and would *love* to talk to you. Please hit reply and tell me about it!
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I wanted to hate it. Planned to, even. And yet, to my — amazement? confusion? unease? — I got nothing but grade-A Christmas ideas from the AI gift “assistant” I tried out this week.
For my precocious eight-year-old cousin: a book of riddles and a Lego puzzle set.
For Jason’s aunt, doting mother to four pit bulls: fancy candles that neutralize pet odors and support dog rescue organizations.
For my grandmother, a bedridden Alzheimer’s patient with no hobbies or interests to speak of: a stuffed koala bear that plays a personal message. (Really thought I’d stump it with that one.)
To some, choosing holiday gifts with the help of AI will sound patently sacrilegious. If “it’s the thought that counts” — as we’re so often told — then these gifts are plainly worthless. I did not spend hours pondering the inner lives of my beloveds or browsing Cyber Monday sales; I did not trawl makers’ markets or malls or lists of unhinged celebrity gift recommendations. Instead, I cued up a shopping bot and sifted through its soulless, automated suggestions — searching for the items that would best communicate my very human care and affection.
Shopping bots belong to a burgeoning and unsettling class of generative tools that I refer to, in my own head, as “sentimental AI.” Once I had the phrase, I saw examples all the time: A bot that writes “intimate, thoughtful” letters. An app that pre-populates digital cards. A Chrome extension that promises to serve as “wingman” for uncharismatic Tinder daters.
These tools exist not to automate repetitive or menial tasks, or to improve “work” as we typically conceive it, but to optimize or economize the emotional labor required to maintain relationships.
Just last week, Wired ran a wildly credulous interview with the CEO of a tech firm that started out automating one discrete task (namely: transcription) and now plans to expand into relationship management (via AI-powered avatars that interact with your coworkers so that you don’t have to do it).
“Why not carry that forward even further and absent yourself from the entirety of your life?” Asked the writer and critic Rob Horning, whose newsletter remains a Links favorite. “You should aspire instead to run your life without the bother of actually living it.”
The same might be said of AI gift-giving tools, which promise some simulacrum of a “thoughtful” gift without any actual thought on your part. It would seem to hollow out and cheapen the whole exercise, leaving just a naked commercial exchange where there might’ve been a process of empathy and connection.
Did you read “The Gift of the Magi” in grade school? We did it like clockwork each December. In it, a husband and wife buy each other two expensive, useless gifts — but the gifts are so damn thoughtful, it doesn’t even matter. (“Thoughtful” is, you might say, a handy euphemism for the outlay of emotional labor.)
Unfortunately for that couple, and for gift-givers across the Western world, there’s actually not a lot of evidence to suggest that “thoughtful” gifts are better-received than thoughtless ones. In fact, according to a rather dispiriting number of academic studies, giving thoughtful gifts may feel good for the giver … but it doesn’t do much for the recipient.
For one thing, even many hours of pondering your loved one’s needs and interests will not overcome the physical impossibility of existing in his or her head. Also, despite our very best efforts, the gifts that we buy generally express our preferences, not the recipient’s, and reflect our impression of who that person is. (If you really want to overthink your holiday shopping, try reading Barry Schwartz or Marcel Mauss, like I did. 🙃)
“If you want to give a gift that someone will appreciate, then you should focus on getting a good gift and ignore whether it is a thoughtful gift or not,” the authors of one 2012 study conclude. “But if you want to feel closer to the person you are giving gifts to, then put as much thought into your gift as you possibly can and do not be offended when your thoughtfulness is overlooked.”
It was in this spirit that I ventured onto Ollie.ai, a “personal shopping assistant” that claims to help “find thoughtful gifts with ease.” Already this represents a contradiction in terms, because thoughtful gifts require some level of effort — even if just emotionally.
But the lift is as light as Ollie promises. It asks me a series of questions, to start. I’m shopping for my grandmother, on this first foray: Does she have any hobbies? Interests? (She does not.) Does she have any favorite music? (Sure. But this is not especially relevant, because she can’t operate a CD player or read a book.) Does she find any type of pillows or blankets comforting? (Now that you mention it, she actually loves this animatronic dog recced by the Alzheimer’s Association.)
In this way, Ollie comes to suggest a stuffed animal I can program with a personalized message. I’m thinking of singing a song she likes, or recording greetings from relatives. I won’t claim this is the best or most original gift ever given, but I do predict it will delight my grandmother. I also wouldn’t have come up with it on my own, though I possessed the understanding — the raw data points — that yielded Ollie’s conclusion.
Does that make it a good gift? I’m undecided. What makes a good gift, really? What makes any human gesture worthwhile or meaningful? What determines if an act of care succeeds?
On one hand, I think, Ollie might represent the best and highest hopes for AI: that it will act less as a substitute for human thought, and more as a kind of multiplier. That it will enhance our work and understanding, rather than obliterate the need for either.
After all, the tool only works off my own observations — my own attention to, and consideration of, the people I love. When I try Ollie on people I know less well, the suggested gifts grow generic, unexceptional: a potted plant. A box of chocolates. A candle holder.
At the same time, I feel no joy at the prospect of future holidays where every gift is selected with the help of these bots. Where someone squeals “oh my god, how did you find this?” … and the conversation necessarily turns to the relative merits of competing Sentimental AI agents.
The gifts might be good, but the vibes are off. Or maybe the bad gifts made us human. But I’m not a philosopher, and I want you to like my gifts: So this year, at least, I’ll use the tools I’m given.
If you read anything else this weekend
“The Hofmann Wobble,” by Ben Lerner for Harpers. A mind-bendy short story (but how fictional is it?!) on truth, language, reality and the myriad ways the internet warps all of them. At first look, it’s an entertaining tale about a Wikipedia scam that may or may not have existed. Read it again, and it’s a perfect parable for our current, mis/disinformed cultural climate and the downfall of authority and institutions. To quote the Webcurios recommendation that had me clicking post-haste: “This is astonishingly, perfectly good, please read it.”
“Under Review,” by Will Tavlin for The Columbia Journalism Review. This actually published in October, but I only discovered it in a fit of frustration over Black Friday weekend: Why, dear God, did every outlet on earth begin publishing product guides and e-commerce content? The answer is obviously money, albeit in larger amounts than I’d guessed … and it would appear that Google’s forays into AI have jeopardized that. But somehow I don’t think consumers will suffer without unvetted round-ups of Amazon crap. (Yes, I am the only millennial subscriber to Consumer Reports … whatever prompted you to ask?)
“Life Really Is Better Without the Internet,” by Chris Moody for The Atlantic. A pristine example of journalistic self-ownage that increased my esteem for home internet. The author, a former #vanlifer (because, of course), forsakes his Wi-Fi in order to reclaim simple activities like “bathing in a river” (?) and “reading a book” (because there’s no other way to go about that). But then he and his wife have to, say, drive down the mountain to check their email, or call relatives to read the internet to them. To me, this sounds less courageous than massively inconvenient.
“A Lady Tweeted About Her Dog. Here’s Why the Internet Exploded,” by EJ Dickson for Rolling Stone. My favorite type of article starts with a small premise and complicates it by degrees, so by the end you feel like Insta pantry content explains capitalism or landlord influencers explain housing policy. This is such a piece, and it begins with an otherwise unremarkable controversy surrounding a tweet about a kid and a dog. But Dickson makes it symbolic of larger trends in the way we talk about children — and care for vulnerable people writ large.
“The Sound of Your Voice,” by Joann Plockova for Dirt. A really lovely and slightly unsettling essay on a friendship that unfolds entirely through voice memos — in other words, a friendship where both people are talking to themselves, and are forever, intentionally alone. I feel like I was a bit red-pilled by all my anthropology-of-gift-giving readings this week — you know, gifts are just contracts by another name, etc. — and so I especially appreciated this nuanced, unflinching exploration of what makes a worthwhile relationship.
Grief tech. Gossip surveillance. The first AI election. Young people (actually) prefer print books and advertisers (unsurprisingly) prefer food content. Color as intellectual property. Why TikTok dating advice is so regressive. Disenfrachised grief, to the extreme: mourning an AI love interest.
Nicholas Cage does not appreciate the memes. I do not appreciate the meme animations. Any app can be a dating app if you’re creepy enough, and any online marketplace can be Airbnb if you’re down with the lawlessness. “AI thrives when our need for originality is low and our demand for mediocrity is high” — well said!
Last but not least: I want to hear from you if your Spotify Wrapped town was NOT Burlington, Berkeley or Cambridge. (Fwiw, J and I both got Madison and are legit contemplating a road trip.)
That’s it for this week! Until the next one. Warmest virtual regards.