By Adriana Adarve – Owner of Adarve Translations & Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations
For many years I spent my holidays at a family chalêt above an obscure village high in the Swiss Alps. In order to do routine shopping, I had to travel 45 minutes down the mountain into the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, or drive 45 minutes in the other direction, go through a seven kilometer-long tunnel and head back up the mountain to a Swiss-German-speaking area.
Sometimes circumstances would dictate that I go down to the Italian-speaking area; other times I headed to Swiss-German lands.
At the time, I had a carte de fidélité (store card) issued by the largest chain store in the country. One day I suddenly realized that the chain store was not only “giving me points” for my purchases, they were also tracking my movements in the Alps and beyond.
I have nothing to hide, but I did not like the idea that my movements as well as my purchases were being tracked by the chain store. I decided to forego the “points” awarded me by the chain store for my purchases from them and disposed of the card.
A friend who is knowledgeable about information technology told me that I am still on file at the chain store. They no longer have a name to connect my purchases to, but they can identify me by my purchases and by when I shop. I usually shop early in the day. I buy a lot of fresh vegetables and an inordinate amount of exotic fruit (for my tropical tortoise). I buy tomato and grapefruit juice, Pepsi and not Coke, a certain variety of cheeses, very little meat, lots of seafood and so on.
My friend told me that I can even be identified by the way I put the items I have chosen on the conveyer belt at the check-out stand. I don’t place them willy-nilly, I always put bottles and cans first, then other non-squashable items like frozen fish, jars of pickles, wedges of cheese, cucumbers and onions, then eggs, bread and delicate fruits like papayas and mangoes. The very order of the cashier ticket builds a profile of me.
I recently read a book called “The Power of Habit” by Carles Duhigg. In it, he describes how stores such as Target use “a pregnancy-prediction algorithm” to identify mothers-to-be as early as the beginning of their second trimester. Target’s algorithms are so accurate and sensitive that they can differentiate between a woman who buys a stroller as a gift for a pregnant friend from the buying habits of the pregnant friend herself.
In the February 17 & 24, 2014, issue of The New Yorker, an article (“Cheap Words” by George Packer) discusses how Amazon.com has parleyed its products, customer lists and profiles into a world-wide marketing powerhouse. Amazon.com’s tracking of its book buyers is just a device to build a customer list and an advertising base that is greedily all-encompassing.
Prior to reading that article in the New Yorker, I had listened to a long report (it was either on the BBC or NPR) about how purveyors of electronic book downloads can track exactly how their customers read the downloaded material. They know precisely what material has been downloaded. They know how long it took the customer to read the book. They know if the customer went back to re-read a page or set the book aside for a while. They know how often and at what time of day the customer looked at the material. They have a list of every book or other product download the customer has made.
When I was in California recently, I bought a book at a Barnes and Noble store. Sellers of traditional “hard copy” paper books cannot—as yet—track every glance their customers give to a book that is purchased at one of their stores. Nevertheless, the sales receipt for the book I bought was accompanied by an additional cash-register print-out that said, “If you like (title of book purchased) you might want to read (titles of suggested books.)
That algorithmic projection—profiling—of my possible future desires in book-buying was an unwarranted and most unwelcome intrusion into my privacy. While it is true that I tend to buy non-fiction books about anthropology, archeology, zoology, history, current affairs, communication and language, I do not think that I am canalized into any narrow subject category or categories, or that my future buying habits can or should be limited by algorithmic predictions, to wit: news junkie and science nut with a side-bar interest in language.
I should note here that I do not patronize Amazon.com, though Adriana most certainly does, and I do not possess any electronic reading device, in spite of Adriana’s generous offers to gift me with one. When I was in California I bought a pile of books: a couple from Hennessey and Ingalls Art and Architecture Book Store, a couple from Barnes and Nobel, and a whole stack from a hole-in-the-wall Goodwill store. Gilda Radner’s funny and moving memoir “It’s Always Something.” “Here at the New Yorker” by Brendan Gill. A rare copy of “The Black Star Passes” by the celebrated science fiction editor and writer John W. Campbell. The haunting “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” by Kim Edwards. “The Vintage Mencken” compiled by Alistair Cooke. Plus the latest Callahan book by Spider Robinson.
If I were to follow the computer-generated suggestions of Amazon.com and other modern purveyors of the printed word, I would be led down a very narrow path indeed. Algorithms can certainly track past book-buying but they cannot predict future buying for any open-minded human intellect. Rather, they attempt to lead the purchaser down the ruts of a known past, without reference to any possible future change of interests or perspective. Contrary to what such vendors would have you believe, they are not trying to meet one’s literary needs, they are simply trying to keep you spending money on the same kinds of material that you have paid for before.
In one of my past blog posts, “Don’t Shoot the Messenger,” I objected to the recent fad of reducing flexible alphabetic language to static iconic symbols. The propensity of techie firms such as Amazon.com and their ilk to reduce human intellectual browsing to algorithmic formulae is a more serious and a much more insidious—I am tempted to say “evil”—problem than the more benign practice of tracking supermarket purchases or taking iconic shortcuts.
We Homo sapiens sapiens communicate in real time with spoken and gestural language, and we communicate over time via the written word (and, increasingly, via video images). Algorithms are fine tools, but we should be very cautious and wary indeed of permitting them to lead our inter-human discourse.
Just in case you didn’t know, Adriana has a Master’s degree in chemistry and is very computer savvy. When you give her a piece to translate she doesn’t call up an obscure and border-line dishonest algorithm, she just gets right down to the nuts-and-bolts business of turning the words you’ve said in one language into the words you want to communicate to someone else who only understands a different language. She does not waste her time—or yours—by coming up with marketing ploys or gimmicks intended to separate you from as much valuta as she can manage. Adriana and her co-workers give you value for money: no tricks, no slight of hand, no modern mumbo-jumbo.
She provides good, good, good translations.
All the best,
Adriana Adarve, Asheville, NC & Donnamarie Leemann, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
About the Authors: Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as multi-cultural. Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.