You Are the Product | Rosanna McLaughlin | Granta

You Are the Product

Rosanna McLaughlin

Like pretty much everyone who uses the internet, I have seen many terrible things that I did not search for and that I cannot unsee. Tortured animals. Random women beating the shit out of each other in parking lots around the world. All manner of unsolicited tits, dicks, silicone contraptions and horny local grandmothers looking for no-strings-attached sex. But the most disturbing thing I have ever been shown is a pair of shoes.

The question Are they listening to me? does not bother me so much as Who do they think I am? About a decade ago, while scrolling through an article on my phone, I noticed them for the first time: a pair of white leather high-top trainers with red shoelaces. Where the toe should have ended the leather curled into a spiral like a jester’s shoe, with a little golden bell attached to the tip. Soon enough my wife started seeing them too. At first their appearance was a source of amusement. Look, it’s the clown shoes, we’d say whenever they materialised, and laugh. Not only did they look absurd, they also cost £450. At the time I wasn’t earning enough to qualify to pay tax, and, in any case, neither of us had an interest in haute-couture circus.

What the advertising algorithm serves me is a constant source of paranoia. When a friend cracks a joke about period pants, I get months of feminine hygiene wipes and knickers big enough to stable a horse. Lately, I have been plagued by ads for T-shirts with the words stay out of my man cave written across the chest in gothic font. Who else is the algorithm showing these ads? As far as I know, I am not a suburban patriarch with territorial feelings towards my personal space, a need for enormous underwear and a fetish for girl-on-girl violence. But who am I to say that my conscious mind knows better than the cold, hard data mined from my search history and conversations with friends?

More than any T-shirt, or unsolicited porn, the clown shoes struck a nerve. As the months went by, they continued to stalk us, and the surreal humour we once derived from seeing them curdled. Like a killer dressed in a childish costume, the ridiculousness of the design began to suggest that something sinister was lurking behind the veneer, the red laces a garish smile painted onto a white mask. Until one day they disappeared without a trace, never to be seen again. What remained was the niggling thought that maybe the data was right. Maybe, despite my feelings to the contrary, these were the shoes I needed, or deserved. Because however much I may like to think otherwise, the algorithm has sucked me in. I dance to its tune, read what it tells me to, watch what it serves me, respond with happiness, sadness, anger and disgust depending on the prompt. Maybe I should have sold my books, my clothes, my furniture – whatever it took – and submitted to my fate. Maybe, right now, I should be walking around, white leather curling over my toes, red laces tied in a bow, bells jingling as I move, dressed as a fool in the court of the algorithm.


Image © USGS

Rosanna McLaughlin

Rosanna McLaughlin is a writer and editor based in East Sussex. Double-Tracking: Studies in Duplicity was published by Carcanet in 2019. She is co-editor of the White Review. Sinkhole: Three Crimes, published by Montez Press in 2022, is her first book-length work of fiction.

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