What do algorithms give us a reason to do?

Screen shot from BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video

I’m a modern guy, so when I read a title like “BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video,” my first question is who came up with it. Shows you what I know. If I were a postmodern guy, I would realize nobody was behind the decision to call a video “BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video.” Algorithms settled on those words, and the only human decision involved was the decision to follow the algorithms. Stop what you’re doing and read James Bridle’s essay about automatically-generated YouTube videos for small children. It is the directest look yet at what is wrong with the internet. Bridle uses these videos as a case study in how automation turns what everyone wants into things no one wants, e.g. hourlong videos of Peppa Pig getting her teeth pulled out or million-person conspiracy theories about pedophilia in a pizzeria. Here’s a quote:

Automated reward systems like YouTube algorithms necessitate exploitation in the same way that capitalism necessitates exploitation, and if you’re someone who bristles at the second half of that equation then maybe this should be what convinces you of its truth. Exploitation is encoded into the systems we are building, making it harder to see, harder to think and explain, harder to counter and defend against.

The more we turn over the content of the internet to automated systems, the more we make the internet into the maximally effective version of something weird and disturbing to us. The things people want most are branded characters, certain screaming sounds, bright colors and simplistic violence, so here’s a video of Marvel villains burying people alive. It feels awful because few humans were involved in creating it, and those who were involved ceded their agency to an algorithm. Anyway, this essay seems like one of those ideas we’re going to refer to in the future, so I encourage you to read it. I’m glad I did.

“Rolling coal” a knockout game for environmentalists

A Ford Powerstroke diesel, modified to produce extra smoke and marketed to men with perfectly normal penises

A Ford Powerstroke diesel, modified to produce extra smoke for the normal-penised gentleman

The problem with internet journalism is that you never know whether you’re reading about a thing that is happening all around you or just hearing an echo. Case in point: “rolling coal,” the practice of modifying a truck to force extra fuel into the engine and produce billows of black smoke. Much like the knockout game, it is either a thing that jerks across the nation are doing because they hate the environment, or a legend we’re embracing because we consider ourselves victims of a world gone mad. Rolling coal is news or hysteria. It started with this article in Vocativ, which Dave Weigel wrote about in Slate on Thursday, causing everybody to write about it over the weekend.

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