Sunday, January 28, 2024

The algorithm

I spend a great deal of time online — too much time. But I do curate what I read. I'm pretty ruthless about blocking or not following Facebook posts that may be amusing but are otherwise pointless, and I avoid participating in controversy because I doubt my ability to persuade in this context. I do sometimes find myself following a string of argumentative comments and that is almost always an annoying waste of time. I do have an RSS feed that links me to articles at sites I have chosen that often take me to good stuff. This review of Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture is a warning about how we can be tempted to "do nothing at all for long periods" online.
In Chayka’s analysis, the end state of an algorithm-driven, competitive media environment is a yearning for oblivion. Burn out the dopamine circuits for long enough and “our natural reaction is to seek out culture that embraces nothingness, that blankets and soothes rather than challenges or surprises, as powerful artwork is meant to do.” This endgame was anticipated by C.S. Lewis more than 80 years ago, when in his Screwtape Letters he had a senior devil instruct a junior tempter to lead his “patient” into something that sounds a lot like doomscrolling:
You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do.... You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return.
In the end, Lewis’s devil says, the patient will realize that “I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” You don’t have to assume that the internet is operated by literal demons to be worried that its prevailing currents carry us far from our own best intentions. Sometimes, the algorithmic feed coarsens us by interspersing violent images from wars around the world with light jokes for ’90s kids. Other times, we ingrain bad habits when our clicks teach the feed to show us the dumbest, most infuriating thinkers on the other side of a political divide.

But, frequently, what I find myself resisting is the way the algorithm tempts me to let a lower good eclipse a higher good. Once you face the infinity of the global content stream, there’s enough low-quality but decent material out there to fill up your whole day. There’s nothing wrong with a Twitter feed of jokes about the cast of Frasier playing D&D, but the supply of quirky humor exceeds my attention budget. I need to aggressively and actively choose the best, not just passively consume the okay.

But the best operates contrary to the way the algorithms monitor our satisfaction. We pause, close the app, contemplate. Something worth our time provokes friction and demands silence. All of that looks like failure to an uncurious app. Algorithmic feeds are risk-averse. It is easier for them to keep recommending more of what you find satisfying enough than to take a chance with a risky suggestion. ....

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