The Unintended Anguishing Aspect of Automated Algorithms

As I approach the second anniversary of Kim’s death I decided a special blog entry was in order. Anniversaries and special days are hard. The firsts are obviously difficult. Today, I write about a new dynamic to grief in our technological era.

Algorithms can cause anguish. Let me explain.

First, a definition is in order. An algorithm is a process that is followed by a computer as designed by a programmer. It’s a set of rules that determines calculations or other operations designed to solve problems. Algorithms help with repeat communications and, in fact, learn your habits, learn about your life, recognize other activities, and make suggestions for you. How nice, right?

Second, these algorithms have been automated. Reportedly, they replace tedious and irreproducible manual work. Further, they replace manual parameters that are prone to errors. The hope is that they lead to performance that is state-of-the-art. But there’s a problem. The automated algorithms fall prey to subtle pitfalls. These pitfalls can render the process and calculation totally ineffective. Based on old or existing data, algorithms are prone to actions that are obsolete. New activity based on old data.

How about an example from my journey?

I received an email from RightNow Media around the first anniversary of my loss. The timing was purely coincidental, but the subject line was, “D. Ray, are you investing in your marriage?” It definitely got my attention. It was a shock, for sure. Worse, the email went on to tell me “…it’s never too late to invest time in your marriage.”

Well, I beg to differ.

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” Ephesians 5:25

Oh, how I wish I could continue to invest in my marriage. If you’re married, here’s a good place to start. Love your wife, men, like Jesus loved the church. Don’t waste time.

My encounters born of algorithms have been numerous. In fact, something I took for granted before my loss shocks me on a weekly basis. A few examples should help you understand.

Facebook has a service to remind you of things you did on specific dates in the past. A memory is highlighted, and when you open Facebook it can be a shock. At first these algorithmic deliveries are painful, alarming.

My Photo Stream on my Apple iPhone constantly identifies and highlights photos from previous dates. It brings them to the top for my viewing pleasure. It also collects photos of a person and puts those photos together for you.

Kim and I played Words with Friends together. Sometime after her death I received an automated alert: “They timed out,” referring to my opponent, my wife. Really? So painful!

I received an email from Shutterfly, the company that produces beautiful memory books. When the email opened, it delivered a picture of Kim and my sweet granddaughter among other pictures from past projects. It was a couple days before Mother’s Day. It’s a jolt, a surge of pain.

My kids have used Timehop which self-describes their purpose as helping people find new ways to connect with each other around past experiences. That’s fine until you don’t have each other anymore and you simply get reminders of how it used to be. Timehop also states that they are reinventing reminiscing for the digital era.

I contend that automated algorithms have reinvented grief for the digital era.

It’s not all bad. In fact, these algorithms helped me in my endeavor to face my loss. Really, they forced me. And the day came when algorithmic remembrances became positive again. After the shock and initial grief passed, I began to like the reminders. As my friend, Joe Hall, says, “You learn to love the taste of bittersweet.” After all, grief’s purpose is not to get you to forget the loved one you’ve lost.

For now, however, it’s good to recognize there is an unintended anguish that comes from automated algorithms. It’s a new dynamic to grief in the digital age.

“Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Psalm 30:5