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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Because it's GOOD for you!

When you sit down to eat a meal at my table, you will be presented with a variety of food. Included will be vegetables, never as much as my wife would like, as well as a more or less balanced assortment of carbohydrates and proteins and so on. My goal will be to make food which pleases you, as well as being healthy for you. Some parts of the meal you will, inevitably, like more than other parts. Some parts you may dislike quite a lot, but you will eat them anyways, otherwise I will shoot you.

When you come to my house for a meal, one of the things you are doing is placing yourself in my hands regarding the food. You are, roughly, trusting me to find some balance between pleasing you and nourishing you. Left to your own devices, and granted permission to purely please your palette, you might well choose to subsist entirely on chocolate ice cream or something similar. Perhaps you'd favor fish.

Similarly, when we go to a museum or a gallery, we place ourselves in the hands of a curator or an artist. We trust them to show us some things, some of which we will like more than the other things. We might hate some of it. Some of it, alas, might leave us with no response at all. When we pick up a newspaper, we expect a similar experience with respect to news and other content.

We do this, because we imagine it will be good for us. By giving up a degree of control, we open ourselves to greater enlargement, greater education, a broader range of emotional response than if we were fully in control. We know, in fact, exactly what happens when we do the opposite.

Flickr, facebook, instagram, 500px, and so on. These things allow people to rate things, and use that information together (sometimes) with information about us (usually what we have liked in the past) to very rapidly develop an accurate model of what we're likely to like. Gone is the idea that we have to eat vegetables before we can have ice cream, it's straight to the ice cream. No more do we have to deal with the infuriating picture that makes no sense, or which makes altogether too much sense. No more do we have to try to figure out what THAT mess of shit glued together might mean (nothing?). Never again, it's inoffensive saturated landscapes from here on out!

But it gets more interesting even than that!

If, in my category, there are a few people that liked A best, and a few that liked B, but the best performing thing was C with 20% of people liking it, what we will all be shown next is C, every time.

It is as if I simply served you chocolate ice cream for dinner, because my polling indicates that, while there's only a 15% chance that it is your favorite food, all the other foods scored even lower. My best single shot at delighting is chocolate ice cream. If you like strawberry, or turmeric, you're not going to get it. Chocolate is it.

Web sites are constantly selecting "the next thing" to show you, and there's only one slot. So, they pick the one most likely to please. Probably it's going to be OK, most people like chocolate ice cream at least a bit. But the thing they show you probably isn't testing all that well, it's just testing better than anything else.

This, I think, is why algorithms serve us such utter shit.

The algorithm wants to engage us, to make us stay on the web site and click on things. That is its goal. Not to educate, to enlarge, to improve us. This is not a newspaper, this is not a museum, this is not even my dinner table. It's a click farm designed to make you not leave. It constantly tests its products, and it constantly discovers chocolate ice cream, over and over.

I like to think that I do a better job. You might not like everything I make, or everything I choose to talk about, but by god it's GOOD for you!


  1. This is entirely beside the point, but I really like the term, "click farm", to describe a helluva lot of stuff you find online. If you invented the term, Bravo and congratulations. If you found it and passed it on, thank you for sharing it with us.

    With best regards,


    1. I did not, alas, but I may be responsible for retasking it under a slightly new meaning?

      In 2003 there was a musical made in San Francisco entitled "Goin' Dot Com" about the rise and fall of the fictional dot-com rentalpuppy.com. The conceit was that they would rent puppies to men to help the men pick up women. But then the concept metastasized and they started building a PORTAL thing for a LIFESTYLE and then they needed customers to click ads. This leads to a surprisingly peppy musical number with the chorus "well build a click farm in Mex-i-co!" as they plan to hire cheap labor to click links! (This is a thing firms actually did, by the way, in these modern times they use robot armies of hacked computers to do the same thing).

      So, initially "click farm" meant a sweat-shop of people hired to click links. I am using here, obviously, to mean a web site built to attract clicks and attempt to those clicks in to money.