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Robot Recommendations

Robot RecommendationsMy wife frequently accepts a playlist generated algorithmically by Spotify’s robots based on a stepping point of her choosing. I rarely do this myself... it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I much prefer listening to a playlist hand-picked by Don Letts or Justin Robertson, or indeed any other human whose musical knowledge I trust. It is not that I fear that I could be manipulated by such algorithmic selections (although clearly, that can and does happen in certain cases) it’s that knowing that tracks are related by a common pool of listeners inevitably favours the popular over the obscure irrespective of the reason for that popularity... I ideally want to share in someone else’s experience of music, to find new things – or old things I didn’t previously know about. The robot has no knowledge that it can share, only a capacity to blindly surf information derived from vast oceans of collected data via prescriptive algorithms.

The enthusiasm with which we have taken to accepting all manner of guidance from our robots – who pragmatically can have absolutely no understanding of what they are doing or recommending – is staggering. My son likes to watch YouTube videos of friendly people playing Minecraft, or kids unboxing rather expensive-looking Lego playsets. He discovered most of these interests because YouTube’s robots recommended them to him on the basis of what he'd already watched... which they also recommended. It doesn't bother him one whit, but I am far more troubled by the whole thing. The whole concept of automated recommendations seems to run on the assumption that the input data will have originally been a result of voluntary choice – in my son’s case, it has been machine-curated from the very outset.

Yet whatever my concerns here, it is worth reflecting upon the way the robots are merely doing programmatically what humans already do voluntarily: constructing intellectual and aesthetic echo chambers. One of my many complaints about closed academic peer review is precisely the way it serves so effectively to cultivate a community of narrow vision – precisely the opposite of what we would hope for from our universities, if only we cared. Similarly, news media attract their audiences by sharing their political bias, which also allows their owners to influence the audience’s opinions rather effectively. Next to these kinds of intellectual prisons, algorithmic recommendations seem positively innocent!

Nonetheless, the cyborg we make with these recommendation robots are cyber-blinkered – they risk a narrowness of vision that can range from the innocently circular to the disturbingly self-affirming. It’s hard not to wonder sometimes if certain extreme views of the world have proliferated on the internet precisely because of the ease with which any perspective can find validation simply by entering the appropriate keywords into a search engine. That’s where the trouble began, in algorithms for effective indexing... but it certainly won’t be where any of this will end.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #23, requested by Tom Gerbicz (@YungGilbu)


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this might be of interest:

Hey dmf,
Many thanks for another interesting link! A little heavy on the Lacan (which is always a little heavy), but a really interesting take on these issues.

sure, yeah Freudianism/Lacan belong to a world well left behind and she's over the top with the cybernetics (there is no superstructure/stack that ties all e-things together) but interesting I thought to see that branch of the pomo family tree coming around to some of the ways in which our interactions with machines are making us more machine-like.
some of this is dripping down even into pop culture, the limits of if-then...

Hey dmf,
I wouldn't dismiss Lacan out of hand... I haven't read his work, but I know he influenced Alain Badiou, who I have a lot of respect for. I also tend to think that no world has ever been 'left behind', in that we carry the past with us in various ways. But of course, I go back to Kant regularly and find new relevance to contemporary situations! :) I have a particular penchant for exploring the roots of the presence in the past... I think it's a philosophical habit I picked up from Mary Midgley.

Many thanks for continuing to share interesting links!


I don't think we can truly recover bits of the past (anymore than we recover memories) but instead are always already making new assemblages for present interests/problems/purposes.

Well put! Perhaps my point is better stated by saying that the entire past is always available to be incorporated in new ways into the present.

very good, so the question as I see it then is what do the different assemblages/proto-types afford us or not and really no way to tell short of experimentation, part of why I like the ethos of early hacker/maker circles.
Rorty from CIS:
“In the Davidsonian account of metaphor, which I summarized in Chapter I, when a metaphor is created it does not express something which previously existed, although, of course, it is caused by something that previously existed. For Freud, this cause is not the recollection of another world but rather some particular obsession-generating cathexis of some particular person or object or word early in life. By seeing every human being as consciously or unconsciously acting out an idiosyncratic fantasy, we can see the distinctively human, as opposed to animal, portion of each human life as the use for symbolic purposes of every particular person, object, situation, event, and word encountered in later life. This process amounts to redescribing them, thereby saying of them all, “Thus I willed it.” Seen from this angle, the intellectual (the person who uses words or visual or musical forms for this purpose) is just a special case – just somebody who does with marks and noises what other people do with their spouses and children, their fellow workers, the tools of their trade, the cash accounts of their businesses, the possessions they accumulate in their homes, the music they listen to, the sports they play or watch, or the trees they pass on their way to work. Anything from the sound of a word through the color of a leaf to the feel of a piece of skin can, as Freud showed us, serve to dramatize and crystallize a human being’s sense of self-identity. For any such thing can play the role in an individual life which philosophers have thought could, or at least should, be played only by things which were universal, common to us all. It can symbolize the blind impress all our behavings bear. Any seemingly random constellation of such things can set the tone of a life. Any such constellation can set up an unconditional commandment to whose service a life may be devoted – a commandment no less unconditional because it may be intelligible to, at most, only one person. Another way of making this point is to say that the social process of literalizing a metaphor is duplicated in the fantasy life of an individual. We call something “fantasy” rather than “poetry” or “philosophy” when it revolves around metaphors which do not catch on with other people – that is, around ways of speaking or acting which the rest of us cannot find a use for. But Freud shows us how something which seems pointless or ridiculous or vile to society can become the crucial element in the individual’s sense of who she is, her own way of tracing home the blind impress all her behavings bear. “
now of course we can in some sense engineer/seed such experiences with modes of experimentation/creation:

Thanks for the extended Rorty quote! He's been on my reading list for a while (specifically his 1979 Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) but I am so far from on top of my reading these days. My work in games is sucking me in again, and my time for philosophy narrows daily... Hence I greatly appreciate these exchanges with you!

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