Experiment Start: Avoiding the Algorithm

In the early 90’s, Sage and I were in our early twenties and in many senses, the epitome of “Young and Foolish”. We lived in response to our whims and mostly our whims told us to either go out to dinner or order pizza to be delivered. Every couple of years we’d consider turning over a new leaf and balance the checkbook to know exactly what we had. But mostly we lived by the balance statement on the ATM. If we felt like going out to eat and there was enough to pay the restaurant bill and leave enough to put gas in the car to get to work, we’d go out. If there wasn’t, we’d figure out what to eat at home.

Back in those days bills came by mail and ended up wherever we set them down. We tried to remember to pay them but mostly we were busy following the whims of 23 year olds. Sometimes it came back to bite us – once in the form of an eviction notice: “Pay up or leave in two weeks” it said. There wasn’t enough in the bank, but fortunately one of my whims helped us out. We loaded my 200+ CD collection into the car and drove it to the big city and took them to a used CD store, getting not only enough to pay the rent but to buy dinner out as well. (Would we ever learn? Well, yes, but it would take a ridiculously long time afterward.)

One time in around 1995, we had gone long enough without paying the cable bill that there was a knock on the door. It was a technician who was there to disconnect the cable. At first, clearly sad for what he had to do he tried to negotiate with Sage – “Maybe you can pay just a little something? Or set up a payment plan?” but she was determined. Disconnect it, we’ll live without it. He was flabbergasted. Cable TV was like a phone or electricity. You needed it to survive!

Once it was disconnected we noticed a fascinating thing. Without the possibility for channel surfing – to sit down to “see what’s on” and cycle through the channels for a half hour, realize that now there was a new set of shows coming on and cycle through again to see if those are worth watching, ad infinitum, we were forced to make active choices. We had a VCR and would pick up videos at Blockbuster or documentaries from the library. TV watching went from becoming a default thing when we couldn’t think of what to do, to an active choice like choosing to read a book. The time we spent watching went down significantly – but the quality and enjoyment of what we did watch went up.

How did we decide what to watch? Looking through the library or store, reading the backs of the boxes or often going to the library with an intent to look for a particular thing. (Most notably, I would send Sage to the library for David Attenborough videos when I was feeling sick.)

Now, with today’s Internet we have made it possible to channel surf in every way. Based on profiles we’ve built up with Spotify, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, it feeds us what it thinks we want along with a lot of content they and their advertisers think we should want. When it comes to social media I find that it gives me a handful of interesting things every now and again, and a whole lot of stuff that either bores, irritates or upsets me. And yet I scroll further – there’s got to be something on.

Bruce Springsteen knew what I am talking about years ago

I’ve been using YouTube music and Tidal for a while and often rely on their mixes “tailored to what I will like” – but after weeks of tracking and analyzing my data what I found, especially with YouTube was that I was being fed the same things over and over again. Saying “Play music” to the Google Assistant gives the same songs in different order. For a while I was joking that Google thought Hall and Oates was my favourite band ever because at one point it was playing it every day several times a day before I deliberately fast forwarded and chose other albums to listen to.

Compare that to my 90s self – the one with 200+ CDs, loads of mix tapes made (and received) since the mid 80s. What I listened to was the choice of a human, either me based on my mood, a friend based on their mood and thoughts at the time, or a DJ. The result was a variety of new music. Lately I’ve been saying to Sage that 1995 was an excellent year for music with so much good stuff coming out. But really, I think what was happening was that I was getting new and interesting input from WXPN, an independent radio station from the Philadelphia area. This is impossible if I simply tell Google to “Play music” or “Play my Daily Mix One”. Even the so-called “Discovery mixes” are rarely places to discover music – they just happen to play things I have played less often.

In great part this is due to the nature of AI – it has a limited data pool of what it knows about music, and a limited data pool about me. Lately AI can do some very amazing things, but underneath it all it lacks nuance and specificity. It can give me “New Order” when I play a lot of Depeche Mode but it can’t make revelations based on what it doesn’t know about me. You can really see this if you play with ChatGPT a bit and get it to write stories. The first time it sounds amazing – there’s a narrative arc and it has details you asked for. It knew what the “Bechdel Test” was when I asked it to rewrite Cinderella while paying attention to that. (i.e. write a story about Cinderella where it’s not all about a man or what a woman thinks of a man). But the details end up samey and bland. Ask it to write a few similarly themed stories and you can see it has some idea of what a story is, but what happens is limited. I tried asking ChatGPT this morning “I like the movies The Game and After Hours because of their many unexpected turns. What other films should I watch if I like that sort of thing?” It gave me some good obvious suggestions and then, likely because of its limited data and that it may not have fully understood what I meant, it got into a loop of suggesting “The Machinist” and “The Village” back and forth endlessly without stopping. I doubt any of you would fall into that bizarre loop if I asked you for that. It also failed to suggest movies like “Night on Earth” which to me is very close to it but didn’t meet whatever criteria it had.

It was Mastodon that really started me thinking about this. This social media space has no algorithm. What is posted appears in your feed in chronological order. There’s no “Your friend liked this post!” or “People who follow (friend) also follow (stranger).” Some of it is mundane and boring, others are fantastic and I’m really enjoying the dynamic there. And when I leave there to check on friends doings in places like Facebook (I’ve left Instagram and Twitter already) it feels shocking to see what a load of chaff is in my feed, sponsored posts, ads, stupid quizzes people liked. If I go to YouTube it is similar – there are loads of videos suggested from people I follow plus tons of other stuff it thinks is related. A while back, watching one post of happy mundane conversations that fighter pilots are having with the people on the refueling aircraft got my feed filled with first loads of military videos and then on to right wing partisan, racist and antisemitic posts that took days of blocking and giving thumbs down to suggestions to purge from my feed.

So, I thought, what would happen if I tried to avoid algorithmic content delivery as much as possible ? To see that, I’ve added a few plugins to my browser. First, I eliminated my Facebook feed with “News Feed Eradicator“. Facebook still works, but now the home page looks like this:

That’s it. Nothing more. If I want to know what my friends are doing? I go “visit” them – not unlike the 90s when calling or emailing them was normal. None of this “watching from afar.”

YouTube looks equally boring thanks to Unhook:

That’s it. Search works and doubtless uses some algorithms to give me results but there’s no feed on the homepage. No sidebar with suggested videos, no links at the end showing what else you might like. Watch the video, then be done. Watch another if you know what you want otherwise do something else.

Ads and tracking have already been mostly blocked forever thanks to uBlock Origin – and the difference is really noticeable.

In short this is an extension of what I’ve always advocated for when it comes to social media in terms of doomscrolling: Turning it from a push to a pull. Pull the content you want when you want it, don’t let it be forced on you. And at the same time seek out new and interesting content that you are interested in.

As I type this I am also left with one more thought. What happens to us when we take in the same content delivered in loops like “The Machinist”, “The Village”, “The Machinist”, “The Village”, “The Machinist”, “The Village”, “The Machinist”, “The Village”, “The Machinist”, “The Village”, over and over? What ruts do we wear down in our mind? If we’re lucky they’re positive, but if we’re feeding them with anger, fear, or negative messaging about our self image, what does the natural intelligence in our own mind do with this?

Let’s see what happens over the next few weeks. Feel free to join in if you like and let me know your own experiences. Or maybe you’re already ahead of the game and have experiences to share. If so, do tell!

(In a bit of an ironic twist, the credit for the featured image for this post goes to the DALL-E 2 AI)

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