The Algorithm Is Perfect And You're Not
Take a bite of the apple, crush it into the sauce, how do you know the cost?
I had a stupid thought the other day. Without permission, this little voice in my head popped in and went, I may have to accept I'm a good writer. I had just read feedback from an editor regarding a story I've been writing for about three months. This story, a work of fiction, represents a departure of sorts for me, an attempt to reach a new style and voice. This process of discovery did its best to break and confuse me. At one point, I wondered if maybe I didn't have what it takes to be a writer.
So, reading positive feedback that acknowledged I had achieved the main thrust of my goal, excepting some awkward phrasing and my inability to maintain consistent verb tenses or use semicolons correctly — I like to think of my grammar mistakes as ritual sacrifices for the roving editor clans; their kind must slash and cut and spill red ink to feel alive, after all — came as a great relief. Hence the stupid thought: I may have to accept ...
But it's a stupid thought because it means I assumed my process, and all the doubt, uncertainty, and piles of work it contained, was something outside the norm, that my journey to reach this destination was something special and unique just to me.
In reality, it's probably something I will endure 100 more times (at least!) in the future.
Lately, I've been listening a lot to the voice of Rick Rubin, the guru-producer who's worked with The Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash, Jay-Z, Adele and more. He published this book called The Creative Act — it's kind of a new-age The Artist's Way — and he's been going on podcasts to promote it. I find him engrossing, in part because I like hearing him say wild shit like, "I know nothing about music," and "I can't play any instruments."
You start to understand why the most famous recording artists in the world work with Rubin when he recounts his out-there techniques and methodologies. For example, while working with The Strokes on their new album, he rented a cabin in Costa Rica's mountains, set up a stage outside, and told the band to play. "It’s like they’re doing a concert for the ocean, on the top of a mountain," Rubin described the scene. The Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr. called the experience "magical."
No shit, buddy.
Rubin's real genius lies in his understanding of the creative process. First of all, there is no "right" way of creating, he says. There is only your way of doing things and anyone who slings dogma about the creative process is a false prophet. Eminem, Rubin notes, writes lyrics constantly in a notebook, on hotel stationery, on napkins at restaurants, so that his channel of inspiration always remains open. Jay-Z, meanwhile, never writes any lyrics, not even on his phone, and invents complicated metaphors and triple entendres completely in his head, due to his adolescent years when he stood on street corners all day selling drugs and needed to remember his ideas whenever he hit the studio.
Rubin believes artists focus too much on the "making of things." Art instead is a byproduct from a way of being in the world, of cultivating a personal taste and pushing that taste to its extreme, of imagining the best of all possible worlds and working as hard as you possibly can to turn that vision into reality. The creative process is a venturing into the region of darkness, exploring the unknown and accepting that you must toil and take wrong turns along the way to reach a place no one has ever been. In this way, the creative process applies as much to art as it does launching a business, starting a movement, or inventing a technology.
It is a life, in other words, of constantly taking messy action, pausing to assess your surroundings, and re-evaluating before stepping forward into the darkness once more. It reminds me of advice from a young Steve Jobs, back before he invented the iPhone.
“When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is, your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money.
"That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
The only problem there, Steve-O, is you invented something that makes it really, really easy not to pursue life in this way.
It is simple to make technology a scapegoat for every problem within society. Social media is ruining journalism and politics! iPhones have made us dumber and more divided! AI will take all our jobs!
See? Pretty easy to do and, I might add, it feels good. Blaming technology absolves critics from creating solutions to the deep, complex problems that our world faces. It is also an emotional backlash to the narrative sold by Silicon Valley for the past 20+ years that technology will solve all your problems or at least let you escape from them. That backlash, of course, stiffens those inside tech's vaulted gates to double down on this thinking— i.e. that progress only comes from bright and shiny ~*new*~ solutions via disruption, old traditions will not save us, and a future full of AI, automation, and machines is the only future worth pursuing.
Technology is a tool and it is humans who decide how and when to use those tools. But right now it does feel like most of us walk around with Maslow's hammer in our pocket, seeing every problem in the world as a nail that needs smashing. We believe the hammer will dissolve all the obstacles before us, or in some cases that the hammer knows more than we do. Especially within the arts, the hammer has made us deductive and derivative thinkers instead of adding it as but one tool in our tool belt as we step into the terra incognita of creative exploration.
I feel this most acutely when it comes to algorithms. One goal any new artist seeks to achieve is the path between herself and her audience. Previously, an artist may have ventured to a metropolitan hub to do so, or gained a local buzz and expanding her sphere of influence ever outward, but now we go on the internet. In its totality, the internet is a befuddling, chaotic void that can be treacherous to explore without the right knowledge or guide. There are underground tunnels and dark webs that most of will never encounter because we, for the most part, interact with the bright surface of the internet.
That is all thanks to two technologies: a) Steve Jobs and the iPhone, which packaged the internet into a sleek device that fits in our pocket, and b) algorithms, which organize and clean up the internet for our amusement and efficiency. Algorithms are a great comfort because they eliminate the risk and pain that is part of personal discovery. If you are old enough, you might remember buying an overpriced CD, ripping off the shrinkwrap, putting in your six-disc CD changer, pressing play, and realizing, with a sinking feeling, that the music is trash. Much cleaner and reassuring to pay $9.99 or whatever to Spotify or Apple Music to curate some tunes for you. Memory may constitute one of the Five Pillars of Classical Rhetoric, in that, you were urged to spend serious time training your brain to recall information, but why waste time on that when you could just whip out your iPhone and Google it?
No algorithm receives more praise as of late than TikTok's. Within minutes, it seems to know what you like more than you do. TikTok started as a shortform educational app in China and when that failed, pivoted to a lipsync app called Musical.ly. Musical.ly found traction with teenage girls in America, who helped refine the product through consumer feedback channels before it was sold to Bytedance, the tech giant headquartered in Beijing and, Google tells me, incorporated in the Cayman Islands (hmmmmmmmm). To spur growth, Bytedance rebranded Musical.ly to TikTok and employed two key strategies. It spent dumb amounts of money in marketing and advertising, rumored at eight or nine figures per month. And it refined the algorithm with engineers from Douyin, the Chinese clone of TikTok, so that users, particularly teenagers, felt cared for and understood in a manner that the real world did not.
As Jia Tolentino wrote a couple years back about TikTok:
I could understand being thirteen and feeling like the world would be better if as many people as possible could be seen by as many people as possible all the time. I could imagine experiencing a social platform as a vast, warm ocean of affection and excitement, even if that ocean needed money that it could generate only by persuading you not to leave. I wondered how many baby siblings of these TikTok fanatics were at home, sitting in front of iPads, adrift in an endless stream of YouTube videos. Perhaps the time had come to let the algorithm treat the rest of us like babies, too. Maybe it knows more about what we like than we do.
But that algorithm, like all others, is a lie. Forbes recently reported that TikTok engages in secret "heating" practices, where the company rejiggers the algorithm so certain influencers and brands appear in your feed that otherwise wouldn't. They do this to inflate and court these influencers and brands away from other platforms. Eventually, Cory Doctorow at WIRED predicted, TikTok will remove this heating stick and make it a pay-to-play system, just how Elon Musk has done over at Twitter, where, if you don't pay $8/month for Twitter Blue, no one will see your tweets. Google is just as guilty of this behavior, with advertisers and Google's own products receiving preferential treatment in search results, despite the company founders once writing in their landmark paper announcing the creation of Google, “Advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of consumers.”
Anyone excited about ChatGPT and DALL-E should expect a similar trajectory.
Really this all ties back to what I previously wrote about marketplaces. All markets produce winner-take-all inequalities, and because the the internet — or at least the surface of the internet most people interact with — has become one giant marketplace, the game is not to produce something sustainable and lasting for the world, but a race to reach the market mountaintop. Ironically, all consumer tech companies do this by hurtling to the bottom, going into massive debt to make their wares free and open to you until you are safely ensconced in the system, then turn up the heat slowly, like a frog in a pot of water, through "monetization" efforts because this is capitalism, baby, and we gotta make some goddamn money!
Capitalism is a loaded term, one of those words with a thousand definitions depending on who you ask. To be specific, we're identifying the digital robber barons of today, an Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerburg, careless capitalists I call them -- the kind of people who seek to become the richest in the world and smash up things and creatures then retreat back into their money or vast carelessness or whatever it is that gives their microscopic lives meaning, and let the rest of us clean up the mess they made. They are the kind of people who'd never realize what piece of literature I just referenced because they are, at the end of the day, artless losers.
And yet, and yet, and yet. Over the past 10 years, the creative arts have bowed down to the algorithm. The algorithm knows more, the algorithm is perfect. To borrow some lingo from your boy Plato, the algorithm has deceived our understanding of the proper form, or ideal, of a piece of work or way of being. Pleasing the algorithm is the goal to which your posts or work or sense of self aspires.
On the surface, Instagram tells us what beauty looks like, TikTok tells us what music is valuable, Netflix tells us what visual storytelling should be, Twitter tells us what opinions our approved, and so on. If you wanna understand why art has kind of sucked for the past decade-ish — in a future post, I will detail why 2016 was the last great year for art in this country — it’s because art is no longer seen as a platform unto itself. There is a purpose art should serve and one of those purposes is to please the algorithm, unlock its secrets, go viral and spread as far and wide as possible. But art can do that without any stupid fucking algorithm. It just takes a lot of time and effort and vulnerability. It will be imperfect and quirky but that’s the only art worth making because it’s the only art that lasts.
I don't hate technology. I don't hate algorithms. Technology has allowed me to travel the world in a way I never would have before and an algorithm from a dating app are responsible for me meeting my wife. They are useful tools. But I agree with Mary Gaitskill when she recently said on the Conversations with Tyler podcast that relationships may be formed online but they shouldn't stay online forever. As much as we wish to transcend this sad fact, we humans are most at home in our fleshy bodies.
Anyway, that's a topic to explore deeper another day. I want to end with a story Rick Rubin told about how artists can use technology to become something more, how it doesn't have to consume us but can instead transform us into a greater evolution.
Rubin was interviewing Johnny Echols, the guitarist from the early psychedelic folk group Love. Echols told Rubin how the guys from Love used to hang out with Little Richard's band, where this guitar player named Jimmy James. Now, James wasn't really a guitar player. He was more of a roadie, a driver. But because James was with Little Richard, he received the same perks and freebies guitarists like Echols did. That included a promotional Wah-Wah pedal from Vox, who pitched the technology as, "This pedal will make your guitar sound like the trombone.”
But Echols didn't want to sound like a trombone, so he threw the pedal away.
I'll let Rubin take it from here:
Then a year later, 18 months later, Love is in Los Angeles, and they get a call that there’s this incredible guitar player from England named Jimi Hendrix. “You have to see him. He’s playing in San Francisco.”
They drive up to San Francisco, all excited to see the greatest guitar player we’ve ever seen. Jimi Hendrix comes out on stage and starts playing, and it’s Jimmy James. It’s Jimmy James, who was the not-so-great guitar player who 18 months ago was the roadie for Little Richard. He was playing through the Vox Wah-Wah pedal. The Wah-Wah pedal made Jimmy James into Jimi Hendrix.
The point of the story that Johnny Echols was telling was, the reason that Jimi Hendrix was Jimi Hendrix was because of the way he embraced technology. That’s what made him the guitar-playing god that he is, was because he was the first guitar player to embrace the technology.
We always have a choice to decide what something means and how we choose to integrate it. The second we forget that fact is when we stop being human.
The reliance on and integration of technology into human life reminds me of David Chalmer's 'Extended mind thesis'.
"They argue that the separation between the mind, the body, and the environment is an unprincipled distinction. Because external objects play a significant role in aiding cognitive processes, the mind and the environment act as a "coupled system" that can be seen as a complete cognitive system of its own. In this manner, the mind is extended into the physical world."