Naomi Kritzer’s Cat Pictures Please is the only story I can think of that has ever terrified and me and given me hope at the same time.
Very mild spoilers follow.
First, some context. I work in marketing. While I certainly wouldn’t call myself a digital marketing specialist, I do try to keep up with developments. When I was listening to Cat Pictures Please, this article immediately came to mind. (“More to a targeted ad than age, hometown & gender: 8 dynamic data points to target”).
Unless you’re very careful, a lot of the things you do online leave a trace. (And even if you are careful, who knows.) This information could be used to get you to download an app. It could be used to provide you a list of articles relevant to your interests.
Or it could be used to push your life in a direction that you maybe don’t want, like in Cat Pictures Please.
The idea that knowing someone’s true name grants you power over them has been around for thousands of years. Imagine the power you could have over someone if you knew their true username – and were able to link that to not only their social profiles, but their search and location history.
What I loved about Cat Pictures Please is that it takes a terrifying notion (because even if you have nothing to hide, who would be comfortable with someone or something knowing so much about you?) and turns it into something positive.
That’s not to say that there aren’t more worrying elements in the story. What happens to Bob sent chills up my spine.
But the central theme of the story – that a wildly popular search engine has become self aware and is doing its best to help individuals – is just so wonderfully nice. The narrator explicitly distances itself from narratives about malevolent AIs. The very first thing it tells us is “I don’t want to be evil.”
(Where have we heard that before?)
While the AI’s power demonstrated in the story is pants-wetting, the AIs intentions are almost cloyingly sweet. And in this story, Kritzer does a great job of exploring what someone (or something) with the best of intentions and unlimited power can do.