We Feed The Machines That Will One Day Consume Us

I don't want to sell a pre-packaged life of the mind to people who write Javascript to track people's web browsing for a living.

We Feed The Machines That Will One Day Consume Us

I remember Lawrence Miles[1] once said that Doctor Who was, in a way, his 'native mythology'; the thing that formed the spine of a certain aspect of his imagination. I think that in a similar way, I am predisposed to native expression in certain formats; namely blogs and podcasts. My mind seems most eager to express and consume things in those forms. As such, I have read a lot of blogs, and a lot of bad ones.

One particular flavour of blog that I have read a lot of—sometimes continue to read, if I'm feeling a certain way!—is a certain genre of self-improvement that's targeted broadly at people like me—20something urban professionals who work in some sort of technical field. Some of them have distinct focuses like personal finance or productivity, but a lot of them converge on similar things. Many of them are very into mental models[2]. If you are anything like me you can already think of a few of the popular ones, because they pop up all over the place. Farnham Street, Ness Labs, the blog of the Youtube productivity lad, the personal finance one with a name so cringe I refuse to repeat it.

All of them, good or bad, quite quickly become insufferable after reading a few posts, because they are clearly trying to sell you something. On the surface, what they're trying to do is sell you cohort-based courses on whatever their specialist subject is, or access to their private communites. I'm actually less fussed about that, because that's tangible, and I can see people getting some benefit from it. What they are actually selling, the sizzle on the steak, is a pre-packaged life-of-the-mind to people who write Javascript for a living, tailored for maximum spread via the medium of SEO and the Youtube algorithm.

It's not that the target audience's self-improvement through reading and thought or attempting to develop your thinking are not laudable goals. I sometimes think of the line from Mitchell and Webb's Evil Vicar sketch where he contemptuously refers to "internet-assembled philosophy". I actually have a fair degree of affection for the syncretic, jumbled philosophies that people who spend lots of time on the internet tend to assemble for themselves. You can end up being a crank, goodness knows, but you know what, at least you came by it honestly, and from all over the place. These blogs create their own little hermetic worlds to draw you in. They talk and talk about their curiosity and desire to learn but simultaneously demonstrate very little of it and seldom really talk about what all their optimisation is really for.

I have a very small audience—people who are on the same wavelength—come by honestly—but I would like to do more! I have plans for some things I want to do out there in the real world, but as I mentioned blogs and podcasts are my thing and I would love to find more people who are on my wavelength. But I don't want to talk about mental models. I don't want to talk in the way that that the people who sell a pre-packaged life of the mind to people who write Javascript to track people's web browsing for a living do. I have been on both sides of that equation; I'm now trying desperately to divide by my variable so I can be removed. I just want to be able to do my stuff without having to pitch it in a way I find repellant or try and adjust it to satisfy some black-box algorithm.

Friend of the site Sean did an podcast a while back which relates to this. It touches on several common Sean themes—the obscenity of money, the true weirdness of the internet, being wrong about which members of the Giant Bomb podcast are good, etc. The focus of the episode, the way that Youtube has become a byzantine infinite-dimensional ourobouros, causes Sean to bring up this James Bridle piece, which caused quite a stir on its initial release. The short version of the piece is that it seems like "someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale". It's something that that I've thought about frequently since its release, and often when I think of it, I think of a quote from this Charlie Warzel article on the subject:

"In terms of contact and relationship with YouTube, honestly, the algorithm is the thing we had a relationship with since the beginning. That's what got us out there and popular,” Tanner told BuzzFeed News. “We learned to fuel it and do whatever it took to please the algorithm.”

The true horror of the both pieces is not that someone might be doing this deliberately, it's that they might not; that this is all just an emergent process.It's almost Lovecraftian; the horror not of active hostility, just—at every level—the indifference of the people with power. Indifference to what kids are watching, indifference to what gets put on your platform, indifference to what you do in the pursuit of profit. Just pleasing the algorithm.

I used to share an office with an SEO company, and this is also the logic of SEO: they're both remora industries latched onto the Google behemoth attempting to work out how to coerce the algorithmic black box into making them appear higher on a list or in a sidebar in the hopes that they'll get some money somewhere. It seems irksome when it manifests as "all headlines are formulated as questions now", but when transplanted to Youtube, it's manifested as something that appears like a huge distributed child-abuse attempt, or endless videos about/in response to a person being glib about a dead body to sell t-shirts.

Self-evidently, this kind of algorithm-worship isn't going to good places. The MIRI lads think too big: the machines aren't going to turn everything into paperclips, content creators will turn it all into response videos.

  1. if you're unfamiliar, he was a writer of a splendidly grumpy blog, and several bizarrely excellent Doctor Who novels between the end of old Doctor Who in 1989 and the beginning of new Doctor Who in 2005, and then his own spinoff Faction Paradox. He was very much a literary lodestar to me as a younger man. ↩︎

  2. This piece on Commonplace does a very good job examining some of the faulty logic behind that. ↩︎