It was like reading through a performance review that a teacher or boss had written about me. My goals. My communication traits. “Pursues goals aggressively and methodically,” or “can come across as abrupt.” An image, laid out in words, of an entire personality. If it’d been handed to me by a friend, I might have pegged it as a recommendation written by a professor I’d worked with personally, or maybe a colleague at my workplace.
And in a way, I wish it had been.
Our first reaction in the laboratory where I work, when we found the website Crystal Knows, was like a couple of elementary schoolchildren giggling over a gimmick website that invents a horoscope for you. Crystal claims to be able to describe your personality, and like anything that has something to say about you or your habits, it’s innately fascinating to discern what it thinks. So, we gathered around it, giggling as we typed in each others’ names and read the profiles it gave us, and then laughing and cursing as it nailed trait after trait with unerring accuracy.
It’s not perfect, of course. If you don’t give it things to work with, Crystal will be more strained in its estimates. One of my professors took great joy in pointing out everything it got wrong. (Though, to be fair, we felt it was a bit more accurate than he did.) But for many people who rely on the Internet for work or social engagement, leaving little pieces of yourself on the web is inevitable. Over time, they build up.
After you get over the entertainment of a computer roasting your friends—“Creative and driven,” says Crystal about one of my lab mates, “but don’t expect him to speak with tact or reservation”—the program can start to seem a lot less amusing. I’m not actually comfortable with just anyone being able to look me up to “95%” accuracy without needing so much as a confirmation of consent. And while it might seem useful to look up whether an ornery professor will be more comfortable with longform formality or an emoticon, do you think they would be comfortable with your conclusions if they knew how you were getting them?
To be fair, it’s not like people didn’t have access to something like this before. Amazon recently released their AI for recommendation software, and cruder alternatives have existed for decades. Frankly, with the pervasiveness of social media, you could probably figure out someone’s personality just by checking their profiles. But, few things do it as bluntly as Crystal, and for so little work up front.
In a way, Crystal is just an exposure of algorithms that have long been in place with the major commercial advertisers and data trawlers, created to form the perfect assemblage of ads to entice your online purchase habits. But those systems are comfortable in their anonymity. So what if Google has some robot looking at my information as 1s and 0s in the dark corner of some server farm in California? Ads or no, privacy just doesn’t seem so personal when it’s exposed to nothing but machines and bureaurocrats.
It may sound weird, but I’m less comfortable with my neighbor down the street knowing my personality than some colossal megacorporation. After all, being manipulated by my browser is something I put up with every day.
But being manipulated not by something, but by someone—an actual person, looking at you through the one-way mirror of their computer screen; a person who cares about more than just their millionth-user sales data; a person with the Cliff’s Notes of your psyche, using them to twist their words into something you’ll prefer?
At least Big Brother knows how to keep his distance.
Copeland is a member of the class of 2016.