Living with Robot Overlords: How to Survive in Our Cyborg World

by Anne R. Allen

Everybody tells us that to succeed as writers in the e-age, we need to be active in social media. And once we get the hang of it, most of us find it a lot of fun. Cyberspace can feel like a big old playground for writers. Look! I can type something on my little keyboard in the privacy of my own home and reach 100,000 people.

Yes, we had over 100,000 hits on the blog in the last month—and that doesn't count the several thousand who read the blog in their inboxes and rss feeds. Thanks guys, we love you!

You can also publish books and reach appreciative readers without groveling for decades to get your work read by some unpaid 20-something intern in NYC who thinks books with protagonists over thirty are, like, totally gross.

You can go on Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, etc. and meet people from all over the world. And make friends. Some of whom may even buy your books.

You can get paid—sometimes rather handsomely—for said books. Every. Single. Month. Without all the waiting. And pleading. And filing of lawsuits.

It's all so darn wonderful.

Until something goes wrong.

Which it does with fair regularity. Funny how nobody talks about that part. But here's the thing: out here in Cyberia, you're dealing with robots—technically, lines of code called algorithms—not actual people, and robots are dictatorial and merciless.

And in charge.

I got a little reminder recently when a blogfriend contacted me on Facebook to say she had some new craft items posted on Pinterest. I've always avoided Pinterest—I'm sure it's lovely—but it's one more time-suck that I can't fit into my overwhelmed life.

(Ruth Harris says she's afraid "overwhelmed" has become the new normal. I have to agree. And I think robots are partly to blame. They were supposed to make our lives easier. Instead they keep us on hold for hours, interrupt us with scammer phone calls at all hours of the day and night, and demand six passwords before we're allowed to sneeze.)

Anyway, there I was, hoping to take a look at my friend's craft items on Pinterest. Since I wanted a quick browse, I clicked on a handy button that said, "sign in with Facebook".


My computer went nuts. It was like it had been taken over by the Borg from Star Trek. A window came up that said something like:

"Welcome to Pinterest. Resistance is futile. You have been assimilated."

I clicked away, totally freaked.

Later I went to check my email and found over 50 emails from my FB friends, either saying they were now following my "pins" on Pinterest, or "I think Pinterest is a waste of time. Stop spamming me with these emails."

You guessed it. Clicking on that one "sign in with Facebook" button had automatically, without my knowledge or consent, signed me up for Pinterest and sent emails to all 744 of my Facebook friends, telling them I was now enslaved to Pinterest and wanted them to be too.


I know this kind of stuff happens every day, and younger people will say it's my own stupid fault. When anything goes wrong in Cyberia, it is always the fault of the user, because robots don't make mistakes. If you don't have the secret robot-whisperer decoder ring, you deserve whatever happens to you.

But I'm old. I grew up at a time when businesses didn't view seller-customer relationships as adversarial. Marketing meant enticing customers, not bullying them.

And there were actual humans in charge.

Sometimes I fear the CEOs of these big companies are like Mickey Mouse in the classic Sorcerer's Apprentice scene (based on the Goethe poem of the same name) from Disney's Fantasia. It's the one where junior-wizard Mickey conjures up 1000s of animated brooms with buckets to do his grunt work, but totally loses control of them. Here's the link to the Fantasia scene on You Tube. 

I often wonder if the people in charge are as clueless as Mickey about the powers they've unleashed.

I certainly can't single out Facebook and Pinterest for blame in hijacking me. Every big online site is built with the same semi-sociopathic mindset: any human who wanders by is prey. The job is to trick us into doing something we don't want to do by making us feel ignorant and powerless.

Which means we often feel as if we live in a world invented by Mad Men's Don Draper and run by Dr. Who's Cybermen.

And maybe we do.

I didn't know Google was reading my mail until the time I mentioned in a note to my neighbor that I saw she'd had a new refrigerator delivered. For weeks, everywhere I went online, I was hit with a barrage of ads for refrigerators.

I also learned the hard way that you should never tweak your LinkedIn profile, because if you change one word—say change "mystery" to "comic mystery"—messages will go out to every person you've connected with on LinkedIn—including your boss at your day job—ordering them to all congratulate you on your "new job".

And forever after, on that day, you will receive "congratulations on your work anniversary" emails from all your contacts who have been instructed by the robots to send them.

And like Facebook, LinkedIn does sneaky things to get you to share your email address book with them. Once they have it, they will save the cached list forever and use it try to get those people to join up. That means that whenever you visit, even 15 years later, you'll see pop-ups saying that your stalker ex-boyfriend, your deceased Aunt Marlene, and that awful hairdresser who made you like Dana Carvey's Church Lady—all want to connect with you on LinkedIn today.

The fact this stuff might get you fired or scare you into to calling the police to enforce that restraining order does not matter to them.

Because you're human, and they're not.

And then there's the way they always try to get you to "endorse" people from a menu of ridiculous options. The robots ask something like, "Do you endorse Anne R. Allen in hedge-fund management, raising alpacas, ghostwriting, or pole dancing?" So people choose ghostwriting, since it's the most likely option. It just happens to be wrong. This gets me lots of emails from people wanting a ghostwriter who end up disappointed.

So does anybody at these companies care that this stuff is creepy, time-wasting, misleading and invasive?


Because nobody is doing this stuff. It's all done by the bots. Like Mickey Mouse's relentless brooms.

Most of us are impacted by out-of-control robots these days. And it's not just the NSA bots reading your email and flying robots shooting up third world weddings. The dangers are everywhere.

Huge retailers and banks are getting hacked because nobody seems to be in control of the tech they're dependent upon. And even if they're not hacked, they're riddled with errors nobody seems to be able to fix. I spent two hours in my insurance agent's office last week while she was on the phone with six people who gave her six different answers because their robots were unable to communicate with each other. She says tech glitches on her company's website have tripled her workload in the last year.

And for writers, the impact can be devastating. I've spent most of the last two weeks on the phone on hold, trying to reach tech support humans after some robot has tried to mess up my life.

Robots vs. Authors

Authors who self-publish or publish with a smaller press without a tech department can have their careers destroyed by a simple glitch (or any malevolent troll who knows how to fool the robots.)

Here are some things that have happened to me or authors I know:

Some of these problems can be solved, and some can't.

Mostly we need to BE AWARE they can happen, so we can back up often and stay diversified. If one site's robots turn on you, at least you'll have books on other sites.

Complacency and naiveté are the enemies here.

 How to Survive the Giant Data-Squid

German journalists seem to be more aware of perils of technobot dictators than the rest of us. They've invented a wonderful word for the companies whose bots and algos have taken over our lives:


The word means something like "giant data-squid," and for me it conjures up an image of some devil-offspring of Dr. Who's Daleks and the Kraken from Clash of the Titans.

The Germans have noticed that while we've been frantically busy posting selfies to Facebook, taking sides in the Amazon/Hachette standoff, and Tweeting about Kim Kardashian's butt, somebody decreed—

"Release the Kraken. You will be exterminated."

The Cylons are winning, people! (I figured we needed a Battlestar Galactica reference as long as we're doing a SciFi mash-up here. You didn't know I was a secret SciFi nerd did you?)

So do we all give up on our careers and/or hitch a ride on a TARDIS to take us back to the 20th century?

Or maybe we should find an old mimeograph machine, copy our books in that weird-smelling purple ink, put the pages in three-ring binders and hawk them on street corners?

Probably not altogether practical solutions.

But we need to go into this with our eyes open. Don't think that because the Cyberworld is so easy to get into that you will have smooth sailing the whole way.

And one thing we can do is collect information on how to get past the robots and reach the humans.

It turns out that instead of having a panic attack/temper tantrum (usually my first instinct) we need to take a deep breath and go on a hunt for flesh-and-blood earthlings.

Solution #1 Search for a Human Being

For Amazon problems, I've had good luck reaching humans through Author Central "help." You hit "contact us" at Author Central "help" and choose a category. Then you will be allowed to choose another subcategory and perhaps a third. Then they will ask if you want to contact them by email or telephone. Since I'm a phonophobe, I usually choose email, and I generally have a response in a matter of hours and a solution from an actual human within a day or two.

Of course, sometimes the email people (still underlings, although mortal) can't solve something, so they turn you back over to the robots with a dead-end, canned message that says something like, "It is not our policy to remove reviews that refer to authors as 'tiny-brained pinheads'. Contact us again and your computer will explode, you tiny-brained pinhead."

Then it's time to get on the phone. Don't yell. They get yelled at all day. Shock them by being nice and asking how "we" can solve the problem. Amazing how well that can work. I've found that Amazon people are generally polite and helpful on the phone. Sometimes if they make a mistake, they'll even call you and apologize.

That happened this week. The robots sent me a rather startling email on Wednesday I knew wasn't meant for me, and yesterday a very nice young man phoned from Seattle to personally apologize for the robots' behavior.

So you can reach a human for Amazon help...unless you're trying to get them to remove negative reviews. The Zon will not remove a negative review unless it obviously breaks the Terms of Service, and they may remove good ones that break the ToS if you get pushy.

I've had some luck with Facebook by contacting them through They don't care if they've solved your problem and they don't respond, but sometimes when you write them with a request, the problem will magically disappear a few weeks later.

And Twitter, strangely enough, likes you to contact them via the good old U.S. Snail. I was able to deactivate an account by writing to Twitter, Inc. c/o: Trust & Safety/ 1355 Market St., Suite 900/ San Francisco, CA 94103

I haven't tried to contact LinkedIn, because they do such creepy stuff I fear further contact might make it worse—like making eye contact with that weird guy who sings off-key Abba songs every morning on the bus.

I have no idea how to reach anybody at Google. But I've thought of sneaking into their Mountain View offices posing as a vegan caterer or a massage therapist.

On the other hand, Google's robots tend to be very good at what they do. Somebody tried to hack this blog this week and the Google bots caught them before they did any damage and immediately alerted me to change my password.

Still, it would be nice to know how to find a mortal being when necessary.  Has anybody out there figured out how to get through to earthlings at the Big G? If so, please share.

Solution #2: Look for a Human Being Who Is Impacted By the Problem

If the regular channels don't work, go higher up. Don't demand to talk to a supervisor. Go to the website and find somebody whose job depends on the company's reputation. Preferably somebody close to the top of the food chain.

I learned this trick from my uncle, whose grandfather founded a major American manufacturing empire. My Uncle Don taught me that when you have trouble with a company, it's a waste of breath to get mad at the underlings.

You should call the sales department—the guys directly impacted by the company's reputation. And if that doesn't work, send a registered letter to the CEO.

This has worked for me a number of times. When I found some crazy stuff on my credit report and couldn't get help from the usual channels, I called a salesman for Experian. Five minutes later, all the bogus stuff was deleted.

And when I was sick and tired of ATT's useless robot voice-mail, I sent a nice note via registered mail to a head honcho at the central office. A few days later his secretary called me—she thought my letter was a hoot—and fixed everything.

And just last week, after being on hold for over an hour with my bank's tech department, I hung up and wrote a nice note to the manager of my local branch. He phoned the next day and connected me with the proper person and said he'd forward my letter to his boss.

Hooray for the U. S. Postal Service! Yes, it's often the fastest way to get results these days.

Solution #3: Escape to the Real World

Take some human time. That's what I'm going to do. I often spend five or more hours a day answering emails, Tweets, FB posts, Google Plus and reading and commenting on blogs.

Jessica Bell, who guested last week, said on FB last week that she has the same problem. Lots of people chimed in. We've all become slaves of the Datenkraken.

So as of this week, I'm going to declare Thursdays my offline days.

No social media. No email. I'm going to be:

1) Working on my WIP
2) Reading books
3) Hanging out with flesh-and-blood earthlings of various species.

I need to get my life back to human speed, or my doctor says I'm going to be a casualty in this war with the Cylons. I'll bet  you'll be healthier if you take a day off too.

Scriveners, if any of you have had luck reaching helpful humans in Cyberia, our readers would love to hear about it. If you have an e-address or phone number for them, do include it! If you've had nothing but encounters with Cybermen, Cylons and the Borg, tell us about that too. At least we can commiserate about living with robot overlords.

Contest Winners!

The answers to last week's chapter endings contest were 1) B, 2) E, 3) A 4) C 5) D

The winner of the first part of the contest is Romance author and book reviewer Suzie Quint. 

Suzie got every one right. She's also the only one who entered. Suzie, email me at annerallen dot allen at gmail dot com for your prize.

I was kind of shocked that nobody else entered this part of the contest. I thought all writers would be aware of the styles of James Patterson and Dan Brown. And the New Yorker says "only 21 people in the country haven't read Gone, Girl." Plus Kate Atkinson and Catherine Ryan Hyde are two of the best writers working today as well as being mega-sellers. Reading one of their books is like taking a master class in writing. Try it!

Remember that to succeed in the business of selling novels, you need to know what novels are selling.

Writers who are in the query process absolutely need to do market research in the bestseller list, and indies will do better if they know the competition, too.

The winner of the best last sentence of your first chapter, chosen by Amazon #1 Bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde is Suzanne Purvis

Suzanne, contact me at annerallen dot allen at gmail dot com for your prize.



Here's an appropriately Halloweeny book. It's #1 in the Camilla Randall comedy-mysteries--a wild comic romp set at writers’ conference in the wine-and-cowboy town of Santa Ynez, California. When a ghostwriter’s plot to blackmail celebrities with faked evidence leads to murder, Camilla must team up with a cross-dressing dominatrix to stop the killer--who may just be a ghost--from striking again.

Here's a great review from Sandy Nathan that got eaten by the robots, but now is BACK! 

Ghost Writers is set in a writers' conference in Santa Ynez Valley, where I've lived for twenty years. Nothing makes me angrier than reading a book set in my home Valley that gets everything wrong. Like where the roads are, how to get from here to there, what the Valley feels and lives like. One famous writer I know actually did this: bollixed up the whole place.

But not Anne R. Allen! This book is hysterically funny AND accurately depicts the Valley. Anne Allen gets it right, down to the dollar bills stuck on the ceiling of the Maverick Saloon. It was so fun to read as she called out one Valley landmark after another. Allen got the local denizens right, too, the crazy characters that roam our streets.

Speaking of which, Ms. Allen's literary characters are pretty crazy/zany by themselves. I love Camilla Randall, her ditzy, former debutante heroine, and all the rest. The action gets pretty frenetic when dead bodies start showing up. I heartily recommend this book. I can hardly wait to read the rest of the series.

Ghostwriters in the Sky is available in e-book for only $2.99 at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA iTunesKoboInktera, and at Barnes and Noble for NOOK.


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Writers’ Village International Short Fiction Contest $24 entry fee. Prizes of $1600, $800, $400 and $80. A further ten Highly Commended entrants will receive a free entry in the next round. Professional feedback provided for all entries! Any genre: up to 3000 words. Deadline December 31st.

SCHNEIDER FAMILY BOOK AWARDS: NO ENTRY FEE. These awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences. Three awards of $5000 each will be given annually in each of the following categories: birth through grade school (age 0-10), middle school (age 11-13) and teens (age 13-18). May be fiction, biography, or other form of nonfiction. Deadline December 1, 2014. 

MUSEUM OF WORDS MICRO FICTION CONTESTNO ENTRY FEE. The competition is for very short fiction pieces of up to a maximum of 100 words. The winner will receive a prize of $20,000, with three runners-up each receiving $2,000. This contest is open to writers from all countries and entries are accepted in four languages: English, Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew. All stories entered must be original and unpublished. The last Museum of Words contest attracted 22,571 entries from writers in 119 countries. Deadline November 23, 2014.

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD $15 fee. Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31.

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