Sunday 04 Dec 2016

No More Mildreds
David Simmonds

I’m still reeling from the news. The national press reported a few days ago how, the mighty internet retailer, Amazon patented a system for surreptitiously returning unwanted gifts. Amazon calls the system "Aunt Mildred."

According to Amazon, gift recipients have the option to “convert all gifts from Aunt Mildred” before delivery - in other words, head her bad taste off at the pass and convert any of her gifts to something more useful. They can also send a deceptive note to Aunt Mildred thanking her for the original gift. They can block gifts of a predetermined type, whoever the donor, no socks, for example.

One’s initial reaction is to say “my, how thoughtful or mischievous those hard working people at Amazon must be,” until you read a little farther along and discover that up to one third of gifts are returned. There is a true business purpose behind this initiative. 

I’m reeling in several directions. First, the choice of the name “Mildred,” strikes me as brilliant. I think it's a fine name, but who calls their child “Mildred” these days? The British Columbia Vital Statistics Agency keeps a tally of names bestowed on children by well-meaning parents. No one, in 2010, called his or her beloved child, Mildred. The runaway favourite is Olivia, followed by a bunch of Ellas, Sophias, Emmas and Emilys. The top “M” name is Madison. All right, I’ll tell you. The top boy’s name is Liam, followed by Jacob, Ethan and Benjamin.

The name “Mildred” is redolent with obsolescence. Any Aunt-Mildred-type I know doesn’t use the internet in the first place, and either sends you a present of very little value and never visits you; or ups the stakes by springing a surprise visit, replete with a search warrant to make sure the porcelain wishing well she gave you three years ago is still on prominent display. Just how many archetypal computer-using Aunt Mildreds are out there?

Another thing that troubles me is the 33 per cent return rate. Remind me again why we chase around the shopping malls dropping 100 bucks here and there when there is a one-in-three chance the effort is a complete waste. I’d be better off giving cheques for 66 bucks and spending the remaining 33 as I please. I’d be better off to just scale the whole gift giving thing down, if not cut it out completely.

Two more things, first, where and how did we acquire the notion that receiving a gift gives us some sort of economic advantage to barter in the temples of commerce? Wasn’t a gift once something you gracefully accepted, even if you quietly shipped if off to the hospital auxiliary odds and ends shop after a decent interval?

Second, doesn’t anyone feel a tad guilty about fooling poor old Aunt Mildred with a letter appreciating the original gift of a hand knitted doily, which, in fact, our friends at Amazon turned into a smart-phone application. Are we not hiding behind the skirts of our computer programs the same way we refuse to make ethical choices because "it's in the hands of my lawyer?" Are we slipping into a morass of what our friends in tweed jackets would call moral relativism? What other social duplicities do our friends in the world of computer commerce have waiting for us?

What concerns me most deeply is what the “Aunt Mildred” program says about the advance of the computer. I am old enough to remember the computer as some sort of super-calculator stored in a specially cooled room that you visited with the solemnity reserved for a papal audience. Then it transformed into a desktop device that, when it wasn’t freezing or throwing up requests for incomprehensible DOS commands, could both calculate and do a semi decent job speeding up your typing, which became, soullessly, ‘word processing’. Then the computer became a laptop, notebook, pad, tablet or phone that could find and communicate information with astonishing rapidity. 

Now computers are starting to do our thinking for us. They learn our habits and preferences and tell us what we should do next; and I wouldn't be surprised if they started to become more insistent. Maybe Aunt Mildred is just a stalking horse, sorry, Mildred, for a chance to scoop up a whole pile of personal information about Mildred's relatives. 

How much longer will it be until computers do all our routine thinking for us? All that will be left of us will be our creative side, defined by our ability to break free from the computer's predictive skills. By then, they'll probably have developed an algorithm for predictable unpredictability, diminishing our unique contribution to the unpredictable. To stay one-step ahead of the machines, our saving humanity may be complete irrationality.

I think I’ll go visit my Uncle Percy. Hope he’s still got the Kermit the Frog coffee mug I gave him last Christmas.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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