This story begins and ends with algorithms, those series of functions so mathy and boring that rather than think about them at all, most of us would prefer listening to our nine-year-old nephew rattle off a list of his 255 most-favorite Pokemon, organized from most to least interesting.
Psyduck is a clear #255, by the way.
But I think we’re all at least vaguely aware of the importance of algorithms in our techy world. We know they basically run the world: the NSA uses them to sift through all your personal data, crypto whales use them to control prices of whatever coin you’re throwing your life savings into, Facebook uses them to figure out what fake news it will float to the top of the feed to wreck democracy today, and Medium uses them to tell you exactly what you will be reading this week. We’re surrounded by them, inundated with them.
And they can be really useful. For example, they enable Youtube to push my favorite content creators’ latest videos to the top. Great, right? I never miss a thing. On Netflix, they (mostly) helpfully suggest new shows or movies based on my viewing history. More entertainment. Good, right?
It turns out that algorithms provide all sorts of useful suggestions that make your life easier. They feed you the content you love faster than you could on your own.
And they’re absolutely fantastic if you never want to change.
You see, for all their predictive power, their fortune-telling ability, and behavior influencing, algorithms are necessarily based on past data. They help shape the future version of you based on the past version of you. They market these suggestions as “tailored to your individual interests,” but the reality is that it’s all a recipe for stagnation. Algorithms that never want me to change are why my Medium feed is a guilt-trip-laden cornucopia of lessons on how to improve my writing/why I’m not improving my writing and why my Youtube feed is one long escapist fantasy of Rocket League videos.
But algorithms aren’t destiny, are they? You can throw in a wildcard, mix it up a little bit, right?
Sure, you can. And you probably should. But you have to go out of your way for that. And these predictive algorithms, by design, discourage searching outside of the box.
They present a laundry list of content you could consume, inundating you with more of the same. Why would you go searching for new content, an effortful process, when there’s all this readily-available tailored content already at your fingertips? It’s the Amazon convenience effect, right?
You’re not going to get off your duff and hunt for something when you can just click on and consume what’s right here in front of you.
Now, in some ways, this isn’t exactly a new problem. In fact, this entry stalled in the drafting phase for a few weeks once I realized that change has always been hard. Algorithms didn’t start this mess. As a species, we have always been complacent.
Sure, there are the visionaries (God bless them) who push us forward and say things like, “What if we explored that fertile-looking grassland over there…?” or “Let’s go to space, y’all!” Without them, we might just keep doing the same things in the same ways and fall back on lazy excuses about “tradition” and “the way things have always been done.” Really, though, that’s just our lazy streak showing through.
Thankfully, those visionaries get smart, try new things, and make our lives easier. And sometimes they make things easier by concocting algorithms to automate and simplify everything for us. And here we are again.
It’s not that Medium’s or Google’s algorithms represent some break in the chain of human development. It’s not like those companies invented personal stagnation. These predictive algorithms just represent our contemporary, high tech version of an age-old problem: change is hard.
It requires effort. If it weren’t Google trying to keep you exactly the same as you were yesterday, it would just be your own complacency, your neighbors, family, or community. In fact, those actors are probably still working at it, too. When we move into a new phase of technological development, it’s not like the old forms and orders stop operating, after all.
Sometimes I’ve considered rebranding my Medium blog as “shitting on Google.” That’s how this entry started. After working through the problem a little more, however, I realized it’s not quite fair to just blame Google or Medium. They didn’t create this very human dystopia; they just made it high tech.
Now it’s on us to go search for something new and to keep challenging ourselves to change. The whole Internet is at our fingertips, so let’s use it to fulfill the liberatory promise that it holds out, rather than succumbing to the languishing power of algorithmic decay.
To that end, today, I’m going deep down the rabbit hole of learning Norse mythology because why the hell not? I have to keep Google on their toes after all.