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540. Keeping still (XI)



I happened to think about a guy I lived with in university halls: I lived with him for one university year and never saw him again—and I rarely, if ever, think about him. However, on this occasion I thought about him quite intensely; and I even thought about a Twitter search to see what he was up to. The next day, I flicked open Twitter and found the very same guy in my “recommendations to follow” section.


My Twitter account is segregated from my physical life, even down to the email address I used to sign up for the service. There is no connection between the account and my physical life, and I do not follow anyone from my old physical life. So this event seemed rather peculiar. Incidentally, I did not like this guy; and it is said magic works when you desire without desire—since I had no real passionate desire to see this guy again but thought intensely about him in a cold way, magic was in operation.


The rational explanation for this event is as follows: as I have noticed before, at some level my social media accounts and email accounts are linked together—for convenience sake I will call this the “metadata level”, although it might not be metadata in the technical sense. I have seen various platforms make counterintuitive but plausible suggestions for people for me to follow before, so at some level these platforms share my metadata. So it is conceivable that an algorithm behind the scenes pieced together a link between me and my disliked hall-mate, even through very distant accounts—the algorithm often serves similar “guessed” connections, but I never notice them because they are incorrect from a subjective perspective. The algorithm makes these guesses in a statistically consistent way at the metadata level.


I probably think about my disliked hall-mate more regularly than I think I do. Perhaps I think about him once every two years, except I forget that I thought about him. I have a recollection of university, and then the recollection passes. The number of times I think about this guy also has a statistical regularity, one I would notice if I noted down every time it happens (usually I would have no reason to). If we combine these two regularities, we could work out the probability that I would think about my hall-mate at the same time as the algorithm threw him up as a possible connection.


It seems like magic because I have forgotten that I do think about him now and then: what seemed as a bolt from the blue was another statistical regularity; perhaps a rare one, yet in no way impossible. This is about the same as natural selection: it seems unlikely that small changes would lead to a human being, but these changes take place over so many billions of years that humans find it had to grasp what could happen to small changes over that period—few people can really imagine what a billion billion looks like, so natural selection seems intuitively wrong.


Similarly, I posted an article on Twitter then imagined the account @Outsideness had “liked” one of my tweets. I flicked back to Twitter and found he had just liked my tweet. Rational explanation: we like each other’s tweets from time to time; since this is social grooming, at some unconscious level we keep count—so that I would think “it’s about time @Outsideness groomed me” and that would manifest as an image; hence the “psychic” event. He also keeps a similar unconscious score and thinks “it’s probably time to like one of his tweets”. At some level, we both keep score in this regard. Further, I have some idea what content @Outsideness would like, an intuition he might “like” a recent post; and the way my mind tells me this is so is to imagine the act itself. So run the rational explanations for magic and psychic powers, but, really, come on.

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