The powerful lesson we can learn from the Matrix.
To live outside the algorithm, you must become the algorithm.
“Neo stopping the spoons.” Collage by the author using Unsplash images from Toa Heftiba, Anna Kumpan and Markus Spiske.
Just near the end of the first Matrix movie, Neo re-enters the Matrix to rescue Morpheus which, of course, goes quite well.
“No one fights an agent and wins”
Yet as the story unfolds, here is Neo, in slow motion, brushing away the agents like he was brushing crumbs off his jacket. Quite simply, he can see the algorithm coming. He has become the algorithm and has no problem predicting what comes next.
It’s not just what comes next for Neo, it’s what comes next for the agents — let’s call it “The Smith Escalation”, ie. more of the worst shit on high rotation.
I’m currently seeing a lot of moral panic about algorithms, like they’re a new thing here to unravel our minds. The answer is simple, we all need to become Neo, which would involve becoming Keanu Reeves. Unfortunately, he’s tall, good looking, smart, talented and by all reports, kind, generous and an all-round nice fellow. Getting most of the human race to emulate that is going to be difficult.
I know that sounds odd, given how many Hugo Weaving’s they managed to find to make the Matrix.
There must be another way.
Algorithms pre-date computers by centuries, if not millenia.
The diagram gives a clear idea of what an algorithm is. I was dealing in algorithms before I’d begun to program a computer. Yet, unless you’ve studied some moderately serious mathematics, it’s not a word you would have heard a lot prior to the 21st century.
This is part of its appeal and perhaps explains why it has become a word of choice for many tech companies — it sounds vaguely scientific, yet mysterious.
This works on two levels.
Firstly, it gives the purveyors of these algorithms the air of “magic”, that they are somehow doing something extraordinary.
Secondly, it creates an opportunity for the purveyors to distance themselves from the actions of the algorithm and thus take no responsibility for its actions.
“Oh, the algorithm? I found it in a cave in Persia, gave it a polish and out popped the algorithm genie!”
This is, of course, nonsense.
At this point I am going to use algorithm as a stand in for all the other nonsense words used to describe computer programs. Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and so forth.
Let’s take our first step towards becoming Neo by reframing the hype.
“Here at Twitgooroobook we write computer programs that collect all your data when you’re online so next time you’re online, we compare all that data with the crap we’ve got to serve up, and serve up the crap that seems closest to what we know about you. If you don’t seem particularly interested in that piece of crap, we move onto the next piece of crap,… sometimes.”
Have you ever been shopping for a new shirt for your son’s wedding and thought, “Wow, this salesman is so algorithmic!”? Didn’t think so.
You know that guy in the lunchroom with the special spoon? “That’s my spoon, don’t anyone touch my spoon. Who touched my spoon? That’s not where I left it.” Spoonguy is both real and really annoying. How to get revenge on Spoonguy? Algorithms.
The upshot was this. All of his colleagues started attaching the following comment at the bottom of the emails they sent him, in white text so he couldn’t see it — “Spoon spoon spoon spoon spoon spoon spoon”.
To the algorithm, it became very clear that this man was interested in spoons. As a result, everywhere he went on the net, he was getting served ads about spoons. It didn’t take him long to realise that something was up. He became enraged. How was this possible?
“Maybe the can overhear you in the lunchroom? Maybe if you stop going on about your spoon, the ads will stop?”
This demonstrates how blinding simple it can be. A first year computer science student could cobble something together in a few hours.
1. Find most common words in his emails. 2. Exclude ‘the, at, is, etc…’ 3. Serve up an ad that is tagged with that word.
Did I leave anything out? I don’t think so. Now, collect hundreds of graduates together, give them a few years and as you’d expect, they’d get a little further along the path. Also, with billions of guinea pigs and their data, it soon becomes easy to see what is working and what is not. Now the fun part, if you’re a predatory capitalist! Get ‘digital advertisers’ to fund your research and make a gazillion dollars. When the results don’t match the hype, just say the magic word.…ALGORITHM!
Google search moroccan lamb = About 26,500,000 results (0.49 seconds)
Back in my restaurant days we decided a Moroccan dish could be an interesting addition to the menu. Our search took us straight to the Moroccan government’s official traditional recipes page. The lamb recipe was excellent and it was very popular with the customers.
Now? Suzy from Egypt looks closest to the real deal, though it didn’t say where she’s living now. Oh, and she’s got some olive oil to sell. Jamie Oliver? I’m fairly certain he’s not Moroccan.
The Moroccan government? Nowhere to been seen. I guess the ad spend just wasn’t there.
So what ads does Suzy’s page think I need to see? Jobs and employment related stuff. Why? I’m not looking for a job, but Seek, the local jobs website is something I visit fairly regularly as it gives me a reasonable idea of who’s up to what in my industry in a relatively small city. Am I interested? No.
I also visit Medium quite a bit. “Hey, Algorithm, have we got any any ads for Medium on the shit pile?”. “Medium? Nah, they’re one of those pay-for services that doesn’t have ads.” “No ads? Weirdos.”
I like no ads. I feel like the experience has been customised to my needs when they’re not there.
So I can imagine a number of ways in which they could be doing it better. Step two on the path to becoming Neo.
Is Neo yawning? I bet he is. He’s noticed how tedious and predictable they are.
So to project his circumstances into our current era, imagine someone invents a fairly decent digital library catalogue, sucks up all the global talent and innovation, make a gazillion and STILL manages to be one of the most boring companies on Earth. It’s an achievement of sorts.
So next time you run into the CEO of Twitgooroobook, be sure to put on your best Neo voice and ask them “Was it your intention, from the start, to be this boring?”
They’ll deny it at first, until they realise that you’re the most interesting thing about them. Oh, and don’t forget to warn them about “The Smith Escalation”.