Chained to the Algorithm

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Chained to the Algorithm
Screenshot: (Instagram)

After a weekend spent indoors with my face glued to my phone, scrolling through Instagram’s collective catalog of boredom and anxiety, I fell prey to its algorithm. I clicked on at least seven ads for sweatpants, leisurewear, telemedicine services, and online fitness workouts, spooked every time by the accuracy of what the machine was trying to sell: products, of course, but also spiritual comfort.

TKEES, a brand that usually sells expensive leather sandals with whisper-thin straps, advertised “elegant comfies perfect for staying in”—shapeless sweatshirts and matching sweatpants that are chic enough for sitting on the sofa and would look nice with a pair of shoes, if I ever put them on my feet again. Entireworld, another direct-to-consumer clothing company, pushed sweatsuits I’d previously seen on Eva Chen into my feed enough times to compel me to click through. Old Navy advertised a 50 percent off sale on their entire site—a satisfying landing page that also led me to the Gap. My cart brimmed with workout tights, sweatshirts, French terry loungewear, none of which I need. Elsewhere, tie-dyed workout leggings enticed me. Various teletherapy options flashed before my eyes and DTC psychopharmacological drug options promised that I could get my meds without leaving the house. A company advertising an at-home gel manicure removal kit nearly got me good. Being vain about my nails is one of many stupid things I care about, but when my body soon returns to its feral state, I will have already ripped my gel manicure off in a fit of pique. I look forward to this day, as it will be a brief moment of excitement that will punctuate the smooth, unbending stretch of time that looms ahead.

Shopping has been my go-to distraction in times of stress, but buying clothing when there’s nowhere to wear it feels foolish. No one really needs a new wardrobe comprised of expensive athleisure, because clothing for wearing only inside the house probably already exists in your wardrobe. Weird leggings that no longer compress are a suitable pant replacement, and the wide variety of free t-shirts acquired from various events or former partners work for in-home use. But every sweatsuit that I saw made me feel better just by looking at it and imagining myself chic and cozy, like Hailey Bieber or a lesser Kardashian hitting the streets of Calabasas dressed for a life of relative leisure. A Baby Phat tracksuit in lilac velour is intentional in a way that leggings and a tank top are not. Choosing to wear something that feels like an outfit and costs more than I would normally spend on pants is part self-soothing and part influencer cosplay, but if that works, then surely it’s okay.

Reconciling facts with my own desire for a temporary fix is a difficult task. I know that a $95 tie-dyed sweatshirt is a Band-Aid for a larger, more existential problem, but even having the option, served to me as if wrenched from the depths of my brain, made me feel better. It’s disturbing to turn to an algorithm for relief, but even more so when that relief actually comes. How nice to surrender to a panopticon, if even for a moment.

But a looming recession and a newly-captive audience create a far more nefarious scenario. My Instagram ads change with my consumerist desires, based on browsing patterns, what I’m searching for, and black magic. It is occasionally uncanny to see an ad for underpants after I’d just only been thinking about underpants, but my brain recognizes that this is how it works. If I’ve been thinking about underpants, I’ve been looking for underpants online and my movements are being tracked, which feeds into the algorithm so that it can better serve me ads that I will click on. But the compulsive need to buy is really just a ham-fisted grasp for some sort of control. Retailers, eager to stay afloat, are assuring consumers that these frivolities are a necessity, couching that directive in the murky language of self-care.

The TKEES ad, which will be my downfall, assures me that buying a $200 sweatsuit will be the “easiest decision of the day.” None of the decisions I make on any given day are particularly hard. For now, my household is healthy. I have a job and some money and no dependents. But added stress makes simple decisions feel much harder. There is no doubt that I would feel some sense of relief if I were to buy the sweatsuit, though financial regret would soon replace that feeling. But the inherent value of my purchase is not the thing itself, but the peace that comes from surrendering to an all-seeing force that happily conflates what I want with what I need.

Pushing leisurewear as aggressively as every company seems to be doing right now makes sense for the bottom line. Refinery29’s launch of their loungewear line is a very auspicious coincidence: an aesthetically pleasing, of-the-moment collection of affordable lounging clothes that launched smack in the middle of a pandemic. Every store imaginable has been advertising sales, looking to capitalize on collective boredom, idle wallets, and existential dread. They are all, too, trying to save themselves, especially as brick and mortar retail stores are closed across the country. Despite middling attempts to fix the crisis that is the stock market, the writing is on the wall: a recession is coming. No one really needs any of the products that these companies are selling, but the immaterial is much more valuable: consumerism is comfort when control is out of reach.

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