Is My Phone Reading My Mind?

The other day, I was on my way to the gym when I thought of a particular song I wanted to hear. It was not, in today’s culture, a particularly popular tune (not like, you know, Harry Styles or Taylor Swift).

The song in question was a gospel tune, pretty famous in some corners of the world — but, as I said, rather unknown, I’d assume, by the general public. It was Shirley Caesar’s “Satan We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down.”

So, I pulled the song up on Spotify. I had, by then, made it to the gym, and as I listened to the tune, I thought to myself, I should text the YouTube link to this song to my father, uncle and brother, with whom I share a group text in which we occasionally — but not frequently — send one another links to different things.

I resisted the urge to send the link, if only because I simply was tied up with my workout, and wanted to avoid a lengthy text conversation. But just 45 minutes later, as I was leaving the gym, I received a text from my father with a link in it. The song: “Shirley Caesar’s “Satan We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down.”

Now, is it at all possible that my father and I would, on the same day, at the same time, be listening to the same exact song, one nearly as random as that? In fact, it is quite unlikely. I would argue it is borderline impossible.

But at the same time, I don’t think it’s impossible that my father was looking at YouTube on his phone, and Google, using some infinitesimal data point it had culled from listening to it on my phone, then sent a recommendation for the very same song to my dad, at which point he clicked play and thought to send it to the group chat.

A strange coincidence, maybe. The group chat had been idle for weeks though. And that was the first time in a long time that I’d thought about it. I didn’t send the song, my dad did; still, something weird was going on.

I have noticed this happening more frequently in recent months. Take, for example, the case of a neighborhood coffee shop. I am not a fan of this coffee shop by any stretch, in fact I go into it so infrequently that you could hardly call me a patron. I have bought, in total, probably three coffees in as many years.

So, I don’t go there much. And yet, I signed up for some loyalty program there many years ago, a loyalty program of which I am still a member; as such, every once in a while, I get a random notification, via text, about some promotion the coffee shop is running.

Now, it is not like these promotions have any rhyme or reason. As I said, they are pretty random and follow no particular pattern of frequency (like say, once a month, or twice a week). They are hardly even sent to me at all.

But one day, I was dropping my daughter off at school, and I thought — only very briefly — perhaps I’ll stop into this coffee shop that I don’t even like, nor do I frequent, for a coffee. Lo and behold, not five minutes later, after speaking out loud to nobody about this thought, and having absolutely zero conversation about this coffee shop for over a year, I get a text message from the coffee shop.

Coincidence? I doubt it. My belief, sad to say, is that my phone is reading my mind.

Now, certainly I didn’t come to this conclusion easily, and there are more examples than these that I could provide. I am wary, too, of what we know to be confirmation basis — that is, I believe a thing to be true, and so I am now looking for things to help me prove my point.

To the contrary, I have often believed that, in spite of the fact that I have turned off microphone privileges on my phone, my phone was still listening to my conversations, then serving me up advertisements based on what was said. This happens happens all too frequently to NOT be true, particularly on something like Instagram, but it is only very recently that I have begun to notice the advertising and promotions coming my way based off of things I have been thinking.

That they happen just moments after I think the thing, too, is just too on the nose to believe that the phone is not somehow reading my mind.

My conclusion is that, no matter what the phone and tech companies say, this is something they are doing now. They are just not being honest about it, and why would they be, since nobody is forcing them to.

Anyway, scary. And for the record — I did not get that coffee.

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Paul Cantor

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.