Paromita Vohra: Some algorithm thing

By  Paromita Vohra | Posted  26-Mar-2017

Representation pic
Representation pic

It's just the algorithm." How quickly we've learned to say that and shrug off every intrusion and manipulation in our digital lives. When Facebook curates our newsfeed, when a casual chat about a friend's trip to Srinagar results in a promotional email about houseboat holidays, when a search for breast cancer brings an advertisement for lingerie to your inbox.

Some weeks ago, I checked the price of a round trip to Delhi on my (till now) favourite site, let's call it Cleantrip. It was a low R7,500 so, I — characteristically — decided to book later. A week before the date of travel, the site showed me a dizzying R28,000 fare. I instantly and loudly berated myself for procrastinating. A younger colleague said: "Oh, that happens. Just book in incognito mode." Sure enough, the same site, the same itinerary, half the price. It seemed counter intuitive to do this to someone who uses your site a lot, but "some algorithm thing" I shrugged and booked.

Then, last week, it happened again. R32,000 when I logged in as usual. Nearly half in incognito mode. I fumed and proceeded to book the right priced trip. Half way through confirmation I received one of those cutesy error messages, "oops, your trip is no longer available." Oh well, seat gone I thought and proceeded to rebook.
Puzzlingly, I received the same options. "Must be a glitch" I thought and continued.

Before the booking could go through, my phone rang. A helpful sounding booking agent from Cleantrip suggested I don't try again because "you know, if something goes wrong again you'll be blocked." She then tried to sell me a ticket on another airline and said the base fare was R9,000. "Shall I book it?" "What is the fare with taxes?" I asked. She repeated the base fare. By now I was incensed and asked for the whole fare with some heat. "R22,000," she said.

Obviously, I was enraged, raved and ranted knowing full well this manipulation was not her brainchild. I know lots of my older relatives, and less tech-easy acquaintances, who wouldn't have caught that little verbal lie of omission though, and found themselves with a ticket they couldn't afford.

I decided to try another site, let's call it, TakeYourTrip. I got a reasonable estimate. Complaining loudly about Cleantrip, I hit book and heard that credit card message ping on my phone, indicating the payment had gone through. Then a message appeared on my computer screen. There was "some issue" with part of my booking (half of it). I could ask for help from an agent or wait for a refund. I knew then what help from an agent would entail. I have yet to get my refund.

Different computers in the office were then deployed to book different bits of the trip (all in incognito mode). Is this a scam? I don't know. I know — "It's just some algorithm thing" that happens when your identity and activities are being surveilled, by sites, though cookies is such a cute word na? So, what will Aadhar mean, in this light we should wonder?

We excuse technology's glitches and why not? It's not intentionally malevolent. If I said that about people, you'd say I'm being naïve. And you'd be right. So, do that math.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com