A good friend of mine once told me a story I’ve thought of surprisingly often in recent years. It is a strange story, more anecdote than narrative, though for some reason it has stuck with me. As context, I should note that when my friend was in her early twenties, before she and I met, she was addicted to opiates.
The story involves one of the schemes she’d used to get money during this time, one of those ingenious strategies that are born out of desperation. She was living at the time in the suburbs, and she would go to one of the big box stores at a local shopping center and, as inconspicuously as possible, go through the trash receptacles near the entrance, looking for receipts. You would be surprised, she said, how many people throw them out as soon as they leave the store. Once she found one for a cash purchase, she would go into the store, take one of the items listed on the receipt off the shelf, and walk it over to customer service, where she would “return” it for cash. It always worked. She was never caught, or even questioned. When I asked, out of curiosity, how often she did this, she could not give a definitive answer. “It’s just one of those things you do when you need money,” she said.
It was summer when she told me this, and we were sitting, I think, on the picnic tables in the yard behind the local market, where we often ate lunches we had bought at the deli counter. When we met, she had been clean for almost a decade and was in the process of completing a degree in sociology. As part of the recovery process, she had made an effort to pay back the money she’d stolen over the years, not only to individuals but to stores, including this major national chain. She told me that day that she had saved up several hundred dollars, a rough estimate of what she’d taken over the years. About a week ago, she said, she’d taken this money to the store where she’d done the receipt scam, met with the manager in his office, and explained the situation. He was very nice, she said, very understanding.
But in the end he told her he couldn’t take the money. The company apparently lost a certain percentage of its revenue each year to theft, a number that could be predicted with enough accuracy to be budgeted into its annual expenses ahead of time. It was called “shrinkage.” My friend asked if she could donate the money, but of course the store did not take general donations. The manager said she could give the money to one of the charities they partnered with, but it would likely be more efficient to send the money to them directly. She said she would consider this, but after she left, the whole situation began to unsettle her. She had gone to the store to redress the harm she had caused, but the truth was that she had caused no harm at all. The money she had stolen was in a way already accounted for. There was no deficit to pay back.
My friend is a very good storyteller—unhurried, with an ear for pacing and dramatic suspense—and it seemed to me that this was a parable, like one of Christ’s odd tales about lending and repaying debts, his favorite metaphor for the cosmic balance sheet. She herself was aware of the story’s philosophical, and perhaps spiritual, implications, and told me that day that she could not stop thinking about the encounter and what it meant about her own agency. We had become friends in part after discovering that we both maintained a private obsession with free will, a problem that is as vexed and unavoidable for the addict as it is for the theologian. This is how she explained the dilemma to me: She had chosen to take the money, based on particular things that were happening in her life. She had needed the money for drugs, and she had used the money to buy drugs. And hundreds of other thieves across the country had done the same, believing their actions to be their own. But once you looked at the whole picture, she said, she was not an individual but a member of a data set whose actions could be anticipated with such precision that the corporation had already budgeted the money it knew she would steal.
The analytics were not really that precise, I told her. Or rather, they were precise only at a very large scale. “I know that,” she said. “I took statistics.” She was quiet for a moment, and I could tell she was disappointed in me for taking the story too literally, missing the larger point. After a moment she gathered her thoughts. What she could not stop thinking about, she said, was the notion that there were a finite number of addicts and thieves in the world at any given moment, and that if she had not stolen the money, another would have sprung up to take her place. The very fact that such predictions were accurate suggested that the conditions of the world were fixed and unchangeable.
Companies have been making predictions about losses for centuries—there was nothing new about this use of statistics—though it’s not coincidental, I don’t think, that she shared this story at a moment when advanced predictive analytics were just emerging into public consciousness, a season when national publications often featured stories about the eerie, almost supernatural prescience of these systems—including the now-canonical story of how Target discovered that a teenage girl was pregnant, based on her purchasing history, before her parents did. The era of big data had made what was once considered prudent guesswork into a kind of oracular power.
It’s true, as my friend pointed out, that the accuracy of these predictions suggests—at least intuitively—that human behavior is deterministic, that the decisions we believe to be spontaneous or freely chosen are merely the end of a long and rigid causal chain of events. Arguments for determinism frequently circle back to the question of prediction, and in some cases conjure some predictive agent. The nineteenth-century scholar Pierre-Simon Laplace speculated that if there was an intellect that knew the current state of every atom in the universe, it could predict any future event. Calvin’s theology goes a step further: the divine intellect exists outside the system and not only foresees but controls its future. But this is where things become blurred. I suspect my friend’s story has stuck with me because it conveys so precisely my confusion about the relationship between foresight and freedom: To what extent does the act of prediction enact the very fate it foresees?
(Excerpted from the book God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning, out in July 2021 from Penguin Random House)
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