Everything is too complicated

It’s CES time again, with a flood of gadget news set to arrive when the industry’s biggest tech show kicks off later this afternoon. As usual, it’s easy to see the broad outlines of the show already: tons of new devices that support Google Assistant and Alexa, a flood of nonsense 5G news, and the TV industry trying to make people care about 8K after finally hitting mass adoption of 4K.

I think gadgets are endlessly fascinating and the silly innovation at CES is extremely fun, so I love all of this. But just like last year, I’m coming to the show after spending several weeks at home for the holidays, and I kept a list of all the tech questions my family and friends asked me during the break. It’s a crucial reminder of an important fact I think the entire tech industry forgets constantly: most people have no idea how anything actually works, and are already hopelessly confused by the tech they have.

I wrote this last year, and it still holds true: think of the tech industry as being built on an ever-increasing number of assumptions: that you know what a computer is, that saying “enter your Wi-Fi password” means something to you, that you understand what an app is, that you have the desire to manage your Bluetooth device list, that you’ll figure out what USB-C dongles you need, and on and on.

Lately, the tech industry is starting to make these assumptions faster than anyone can be expected to keep up. And after waves of privacy-related scandals in tech, the misconceptions and confusion about how things works are both greater and more reasonable than ever.

So let’s make this a CES tradition: a list of things the tech industry assumes everyone knows, but that are actually extremely confusing if you’re not in the bubble. I’ve got a bunch of my own here, as well as several sourced from this Twitter thread, but I want to start with the most-frequently-asked question of all:

No one knows how Facebook ad targeting works and everyone assumes their phones are listening to them

This, without question, is the number one thing people talk to me about lately. Everyone has a story about how they’ve never searched for something, but saw an ad for it after talking about it with a friend. Everyone. At this point people hate and fear online ads for diametrically-opposed reasons: they hate the poorly-targeted ads that show them products they’ve already bought, and they fear the hyper-targeted ads showing them things the machine has deduced they might buy in the future. Until every ad on every platform has a button that displays exactly why it was targeted in clear detail, this is a no-win situation. No matter how many times the industry explains lookalike audiences and location signals or whatever else is going on, people will continue to assume — if not argue vehemently — that Facebook is listening to them. Ads are sick, and the only cure is extreme transparency.

Okay, here’s the rest of the list. As you read it, don’t just answer the questions in your head. Of course you know the answers! You’re a Verge reader. Instead, just ask yourself: Why doesn’t everyone else know the answers? Why doesn’t all this stuff work together better? Why is everything named so poorly? And most of all: why is it so hard for these companies to just explain what’s going on?

CES is great for seeing a little glimpse of the future, but real lives in the present are messy and complicated. Assuming that anyone cares about downloading one more app or creating one more secure password is a huge and potentially dangerous mistake.

It’s fun to look at new products and check out far-fetched concept touchscreen refrigerators, but I think the most important questions we can ask when we look at new tech products are actually the simplest: how does it work? How do you set it up? What happens when people don’t understand something? Do I need to create a new username and password? Will that lead to data collection? Is all of that secure? Does it work well with other things I’ve already bought?

If you’re not asking these questions, you’re not only doing yourself a disservice, you’re doing a disservice to everyone around you. Because if you’re reading this list, you’re the person the industry most needs to impress — and you’re the person everyone else comes to for help.


Ads are sick, and the only cure is extreme transparency.

Insofar as nuclear war is a cure for human ailments, yes. Extreme transparency for ads will make it apparent that ad personalization doesn’t work, and never did work. Not in a way ad platforms want everyone to believe, at least. Everyone’s FB and Google ad interests are filled with useless bullshit used to create meaningles personalization categories; it’s impossible to properly infer intent from web browsing; and analytics data is based on lies. We don’t really get truly personalized ads, and even if we did, there would be no way to measure their effectiveness.

Personalized adds = throw every add that match the keywords The user last research. It’s embarrassing tô research something like Ritalin just tô get tons of adds for rehab clinics.

You aren’t wrong, but it opens an interesting question. Personalization with ads is fairly basic, it looks at recent activity and matches based on a set of rules. It’s funny that people think more is going on … blame Hollywood maybe. Beware the big ad engine following you around and selling your deepest secrets to Uncle same. Haha

Inference requires some kind of pattern. And so far at least within let’s say 1 year …. the truth is there aren’t really any consistent patterns. The ones there are could have been found based on simple logic…."they check their email when they get home"

They probably have enough data to build a profile, but developing the algorithms to do that at scale in real-time that feeds that information into marketing is hard even for the giants.

I would prefer to just pick (select categories) what kind of ads I see on the internet instead of these BS "personalized" ads.

I don’t know if I ever bought a product after seeing a Google ad, but I know a couple of products I bought after seeing an Instagram ad. Sure seems to be working for them.

Soooooo … is my phone listening to me?


By the way: I copied this link from Google AMP. I know it’s not directly to VOX. I decided to do it this way in the spirit of this article

"How come when I copy the link to share a news article from Google it looks all weird?"

The whole mysterious ads on phones is CRAZY. A few times Instagram would show ads for Vaporub, I never searched it in my life AND have microphone access turned off. Coincidentally my fiance will randomly ask me to get her the vaporub. Who knows, maybe she searched it and its related ads to friends..which is still creepy.
"How do I make sure deleting photos from my iPhone won’t delete them from my computer?"
This I will never know the answer to, i’m more scared to give the answer because I don’t want to be responsible for deleting someone’s photos. I always tell friends and family to call Apple. My mom wanted to clear some iCloud storage on her phone, she removed the documents and ended up deleting it on her iMac. Thank god I have a time machine backup running.

I don’t think deleting documents on a cloud service then complaining when you can’t access them from a different device is an issue with the service.

I think it depends on the service.

Both google photos and dropbox make a central part of their marketing that you can delete the local copy and the cloud copy will stay. iCloud, as far as I know, deletes the cloud copy when you delete the local copy.

It’s that both of these are ‘cloud services’ but there’s such a difference in perceived behavior that creates the uncertainty.

I see what you mean but the OP was trying to clear space on iCloud.

She deleted the files on iCloud from her phone and it deleted the local copy on her iMac. So i had to recover the files from her time machine to retrieve the files. You would think a cloud copy wouldn’t have anything to do a with a local copy.

If she synchronizes iCloud with her local archive, then, of course, deleting a cloud copy deletes the local copy. Because "local copy" just means "downloaded/cached cloud copy". Activating iCloud Photos means having one photo library, everywhere. If you want to maintain different photos on your iPhone than on your Mac, you have to turn it off, then you’ve got two separate libraries. I guess Apple needs to explain this better, but it’s perfectly logical.

So my advice to Apple users is always the same: turn on iCloud Photos, then manage your library wherever you want, on any device you want. All in one place. And don’t get any ideas about putting photos somewhere else. That might seem restrictive at first, but it also removes all the other potential questions such as:
• how do I get photos from my iPhone to my Mac?
• how can I access photos from my Mac on my iPhone?
• I have a folder with 500 photos on this computer and a folder with 500 photos on this external drive, and I copied all of most those photos probably to another drive but then started to add new photos to that so my question is … help me

edit: but also, even if you delete a photo on iCloud by accident, it’s still stored for 30 more days in the "deleted" folder.

Since you already said "Coincidentally" and we know that coincidences do happen, are the ads on phones really that crazy?

As far as the deletion of photos on iPhone and computer simultaneously…more info is needed from the user’s end but just know that once iCloud is involved your chances of both recovering lost photos and additional confusion regarding the state of said photos are proportional.

She searched while on the same wireless network you were on – same WAN IP address. I get ads frequently on things I know my wife is interested in, but definitely am not.

Ah ha, this makes sense!

When you delete a photo from iPhoto on your iPhone, it deletes the picture everywhere your icloud ID resides, which means you computer, iPad, etc. This assumes you use the Photos app—universal deletion is automatic.

Gotcha! Thanks

There are no mysterious ads on phones.

In your example there are dozens of explanations that aren’t "MY PHONE IS LISTENING TO ME ALL THE TIME!!!!"

Maybe it was just a coincidence. You only noticed it because it stood out to you. You don’t think about the hundreds of ads you see daily that aren’t relevant or about things you haven’t talked about recently.

Maybe the ad was shown to you because of your zip code. Vaporub might have been trying to boost sales in your area.

Maybe it was seasonal. Certain times of year when a product does it’s best sales a company will push the ads harder knowing that consumers are more likely to need or want their product at that time (think cold medicine in winter or allergy medicine in spring)

Perhaps you are in an age demographic that they were trying to appeal to at that time.

There are countless ways you could be targeted for a specific ad that aren’t: "Someone mentioned it around me and my phone heard"

We can’t cater to the lowest common denominator anymore. Either learn tech or get left behind.

Who is "we"?

That’s the right question. There’s a different "we" for all this stuff. There probably isn’t any "we" for a lot of this stuff.

For instance, who needs a smart toilet or a smart pill bottle? Not me. But when I get old and decrepit, sure, I just might.

A lot of those questions will be coming from people who are nowhere near the lowest anything.

lowest information consumer

Honestly that is a very ignorant statement. Plenty of people are smart or valuable in their own ways. Not fully understanding tech does not automatically make one "lowest common denominator" in intelligence or any other category.

View All Comments
Back to top ↑