Free of Algorithmic Influence Since 1986

A signpost at a crossroads in front of a beautiful sunset
A Photo by Javier Allegue Barros (Unsplash), and definitely not an algorithm

Algorithms are the boogeyman, the hidden hand, and the answer to pretty much everything related to (content) discovery these days.

For instance, if you were to ask someone how they met their significant other in the last decade or so, there's a high double digit percentage their answer will be Hinge, Tinder, or one of the many dating apps.

If you ask someone how they get their news, the answers that aren't "The New York Times app" or (Insert Newsletter Here) often point in the direction of social media (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok), Apple News (which is algorithmically driven), or some other news app. (Occasionally, you'll meet the brave souls who respond with "I don't" or "TV.")

Algorithms are often blamed for the flattening of culture, as Kyle Chayka does in his book Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture, which argues in favor of human creation versus algorithmically-spoon-fed content and options. (Matthew Perpetua of Fluxblog has a really good rebuttal to Chayka's book, and I simultaneously find myself agreeing with both Chayka and Perpetua.) They can also be pointed at (with evidence) for the creation of extremists at scale, dissemination of disinformation to the masses, and creating a boatload of ill-intended effects on a societal level.

This, of course, relies entirely on buying into using these algorithms in your daily life for entertainment, education, social reasons, and pretty much everything else. Allowing such choices to be made by math equations — which, in turn, could be influenced by growth-minded business decisions — is something I decidedly opted out of when such machinations first appeared on the scene.

Content Curation By Hand

This is not to say that I don't use Spotify, YouTube, Instagram, and a boatload of other places where algorithms power feeds or steer users in a certain direction. I use these apps and services daily, albeit in ways that are driven by purpose, not by throwing myself at the whim of the algorithm and letting it carry me to where it feels it should.

For instance, my (excessive) Spotify usage is wholly driven by search. Instead of relying on the Daylist or tailored playlists, every album and song I listen to is by individual choice — a choice I came to after a friend, an online publication, or a song playing in a coffee shop drove me there. (One could argue that the coffee shop's reliance on playing algorithmically generated playlists is, in fact, algorithmic influence on my own life, thus destroying my entire premise here, but it was my choice to seek out that coffee shop and, later, that song — regardless of how or why they chose to play it.)

While many ride the wave of YouTube recommendations, I simply go to the site when I'm in search of a specific video or are linked there by a friend/article and nothing else. For as long as I've been on social media sites — this year marks 20 years — I've always gone through great lengths just to sort my news feed by time posted, never by algorithm. Sometimes, this meant missing out on social media trends for long stretches of time before such behavior was permitted by API or third-party service. Other times, it meant hackneyed and annoying browser-based access when others were freely using privacy-infringing apps.

Most importantly, I get my news and recommendations from RSS feeds — a fact I annoyingly repeat to everyone I meet — with the feeds personally chosen and curated based on preferred taste, political alignment, and many other factors that have everything to do with individualized choice and research and zilch to do with something I was fed by a feed elsewhere.

"Relatively" Free of Algorithmic Influence

There are, much to my dismay, algorithms that have done things for me without my input and consent. These are algorithms that are baked into major facets of society and impossible to live without due to widespread societal and commercial/governmental buy-in. This includes, but may not be limited to:

  • Whether or not I received a mortgage two years ago (and the rate that I received).
  • Which driver/car I get on Uber.
  • If I get bumped from an overbooked flight.
  • Which room I get at a hotel.
  • If I'm allowed into Madison Square Garden.
  • Probably a boatload of other things to which I remain blissfully unaware.

I suppose that to be entirely free of algorithmically driven choices, one must live entirely offline and off the grid. Thus, I'd rather begrudgingly accept the least amount of unavoidable algorithmic influence in the background, lest I become a recluse.

My only hope is for reliance on and prevalence of such unavoidable system to decrease, not increase. Knowing capitalism's history and overall trajectory, this is highly unlikely, but a man can dream.

Five Recommendations

  • The Way Home — Someone at Hallmark (yes, the channel for "smooth-brain" content, as my wife calls it) greenlit a rather compelling episodic TV show about a pond in Canada that sends certain people who fall in it back in time. As goofy as it sounds on paper, the show is actually quite beautiful and often very un-Hallmark. There's attempted murder, genderqueer characters, trafficking of illicit materials, and death. Andie MacDowell's in it. Need I say more?
  • Fantasy of a Broken Heart — "AFV" — This may end up being my favorite song of the year. It's somewhere between the Arcade Fire, Ween, Beat Happening, and Broken Social Scene. It's catchy as hell and a bit all over the place, but in best way possible. Also, it has a zither and violin. (Apple Music) (Spotify)
  • MorgenI wrote about this in depth on LinkedIn, but it's a fantastic visual representation of how my brain perceives time and to-dos. There's nothing else quite like it.
  • Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan — I've been reading a ton of modern Irish lit, and this is among my favorites. You can finish it in about an hour or two, and a movie adaptation is out later this year.
  • Charred brussels sprouts with sweet chili sauce and a hint of lemon — I had this dish at an otherwise pretty dismal happy hour at SXSW a few weeks back. It has since replaced a bagel with lox and cream cheese as my favorite food of all time, and the entire recipe is in the name (save for some oil and a little flake salt).

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