The Algorithms

July 2, 2018 ยท 5 minute read

Yesterday

Media consumption.

Two hundred years ago your media would have consisted of, if you were living in a large enough city, a newspaper or two. Plus whatever correspondence you had via the post with other people. Your choices were limited and your media was curated by a human being.

A hundred years ago, cinema was the mass medium of the day. On a given week, you might be able to watch a handful of new movies. Which movies made it to your local cinema was the result of a series of choices by the owners of the cinemas and the companies that produced those movies (which often were the same thing).

A little under a hundred years ago, radio was added to your media options. Depending on where you lived, you might have access to a radio station or a handful. The programming was limited and was chosen by a human.

A couple of decades later, television was on the rise. The average person began to have more choices. You might not read the same paper as your neighbor, although you probably did. You might not watch the same television shows as your neighbor, but you probably did. You had more choices, but the menu of choices was still curated by a human being. And you might reasonably sample every newspaper on offer, or every television show, to decide which you preferred to consume.

Today

Today everyone is, or can be, a producer of content. The choices are much too vast to actually sample yourself.

Right now in 2018, in one hour, 18,000 hours of video are added to YouTube.

There was a time when a person could possibly have watched every movie that existed to that point. That time is long past, and the volume of media content is continuing to explode. We live in the information age. There is vast information, and the problem as a consumer is no longer finding content, but filtering content.

The job of curator is no longer one which can be done by a human, or even a team of humans.

How do we decide what media to consume, today?

Increasingly, the media outlets (Netflix, Facebook, YouTube) are presenting us with a list of choices based on an algorithm. A computer program which was written by a team of people, none of whom fully understands how it works, exactly. But it can be tuned.

Its job is not to provide you the best content. Its job is not even to provide you content you want or like (although that is usually helpful in fulfilling its true purpose). Its job is certainly not to challenge you and to provide content you might not otherwise seek, or containing viewpoints you might disagree with.

That algorithm has only one purpose… and that is to make money. To get you to keep watching, and viewing ads. How it does so does not matter to the algorithm.

This means Facebook and YouTube are more likely to show you political posts you agree with. It means we are getting more silo-ed than ever. There is not a shared mass medium like Walter Cronkite on the nightly news.

When they work “well”, it’s a dopamine hit to some reptillian part of our brains seeking novelty. It’s addictive, and fun.

What it means is that we are consuming media that not only did we not pick, but no human being picked. That no human being really understands HOW it was picked.

The implications of this are only now beginning to be understood.

Tomorrow

I have a list of media that I’ve been adding to for some years. Whenever someone I trust has a recommendation for a book, a movie, or a TV show, I add to it. It keeps growing, in part because I’ve been letting The Algorithm choose for me instead of using this list.

When I sit down after a long day and want to be entertained, it’s far easier to pull up YouTube and mindlessly click about for a short video that usually I find quite interesting. But two hours later when I’m still clicking the next suggested video and feel a deep sense of fogginess that I realize I’ve been plugged into a machine that no one understands, that is built to extract value from me.

I’m a technophile and always have been. Technology has the potential for such good in this world.

The Algortithm is beginning to scare me. And it’s taken me years to get to this point of understanding of the issue.

I have little hope for others, but for me, I am resolving to be more of a curator of my own media consumption.

I’m going to try to use that list of media I am interested in. Yes, it’s in a computerized list, but it might as well be on paper. It’s a list of choices that were not curated by an algorithm that is trying to make money as efficiently as possible, with me as a cog in a vast wheel.

It’s an old thing. It’s hundreds of years old.

We should all try to be more conscious of our media choices. Most of us aren’t making any choices at all.

Crux

As I’ve laid this all out, I find it terrifying. But why?

Is it the scale? Is it the opacity? Is it the purpose?

Media has always had gatekeepers. What is different about The Algorithm than a media executive making these decisions?

I’m not sure yet how to articulate why I feel this way. I’m ruminating.