An Endless Loop of Endless Choices of Endless Content
..or how to bypass internet algorithms and vortices.
We solved the perpetual motion conundrum! Even the great Leonardo had to give up on it. If you actually look for anything in the biggest public library of all times (yes, the internet!) you may get swallowed in an endless loop of information, pictures, news and videos.
How do I come up with ideas? Where do I find quality news? How do I rate events?
As I am often pointedly reminded, I do spend a lot of my time in the internet. Life online seems to go so much faster. There is a risk that it actually is simply spinning faster in place – without any forward movement. A disco ball of sounds, images and lights.
The internet can very easily be an endless loop of endless choices of endless content. So, on a lighter side, what does this mean?
You can never simply dive into the internet. Think about how much is created, stored and accessible? Take Netflix. 600 days of programmes stored in 2020 alone. Even if only half of it is good, hmm, that is still a full year. And that is one source of one format. So, except if you want to look at HTML code or use your /CMD box like in 1989, you need hand-holding. And, with hand-holding, there are only grades of influences to accept.
“Recommended for you”
Did you ever had articles, news items or blogs “recommended for you”? Nice try!
Translation: We [The Company] processed what you did over the past weeks, days, hours. We also know what people-like-you did. We used that data to regurgitate it back to you. We are pretty sure you will be happy with us doing this, as after all, these are your own usage statistics. So how could you not be happy seeing yourself on the screen? If you are not happy with the recommendation, it has to be that either someone else used your phone recently, or because we [The Company] defined the wrong peer group for you.
That is an algorithm.
That is the greatness of machine learning, i.e. the ability to harness the exponential increases in calculation power to process data.
At the heart of it, an algorithm powers an updated version of social-demographics marketing, based on an underlying gigantic pool of voluntary or less voluntary data. The internet, and social media in particular, has become a time sink powered by statistics, feeding us back to ourselves in a loop. Sounds like something out of Dante’s Inferno? Well, damnation is sweet when it can go on forever repeating the same. So, if the internet with its algorithms is designed as a time sink, we should try to rely on less curated content, avoid looking at what we are expected to look at.
How to find information without it first being selected, organised and presented back to us in the most optimised way, in order to catch and retain our attention? It will not be based on our interest or what we were looking for, neither our attention, our eyeballs!
Unfortunately, we will have to shovel through the entire pile of information first!
How to achieve that? Many possibilities..
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Start with the retail approach
First, rely on a retail approach, i.e. a shorter selection made with a clearly stated intent.
For you to go through a shop door, the signage, the display, the name, has to clearly state what you will find here. Same on the internet. A title, a list of contents, and a clearly stated goal allows you to already frame what you will find/look at. For example, when you access Facebook you do that to get an overview of what friends and family are up to. If you visit Reddit on the other end, it’s more a free for all fast consumption internet content. Like with a retailer, you can choose your favourite access and delivery method: screen read, saved sites, PDFs, etc.…
Still, the content will be enormous. And yet, you will want to avoid what the screen shows you, as there is probably some underlying logic, even if it is only a technological choice.
Especially in the Age of Rage, you want to make sure that you spend time on “quality” material. So, how to prioritise?
Star ratings and reviews are a hint, not a proof
Can answers to my question be crowdsourced? Let’s put it differently: does the public at large know best? That is the principle of the star rating system, no? The average opinion as a guiding star?
Nah, can’t be right. Neither is the “latest viewed” article the answer, nor simply the “most viewed” piece of information. Else any viral meme would end up being the truth!
Some advocate to simply reduce the intake
“Focus on less information of higher relevance”, says Mark Manson. OK, yeah, agreed, but who is to define the ”relevance”. What is relevance, actually? Sounds pretty much to me like, ”You watch too much TV”, “You read too many comics”, or “You read too many books”. Although that last one would have been uttered in 1890 I guess.
So, no, living under a rock won’t do for me when freediving the internet.
Freedom! Let’s reject all of it, and randomly read whatever then?
In the end of the day, the greater the freedom, the more our personal responsibility is involved. Sounds obvious, and there is no greater echo chamber to ego than the internet. The internet is what you bring yourself. And if you want to listen to yourself, you can. Endlessly.
The saving grace is only good old fashioned analytical skills, i.e. classifying, prioritising, rating information, its source and the intention being its publication or release. For each, we need a clear understanding of the price we accept to pay to access this information. The price to pay can be time, attention, traffic, support (likes, stars, karma points),… For this, a solid understanding of the underlying technologies and how they recognise you as a user, will drive what they [The Companies] will show you, and what they will propose to you.
Don’t get trapped in your own head. The only viable alternative, to me personally, is to build yourself as an extraction machine. Acknowledge, accept and set your own filters. Set up your own science of knowledge, your own analyses protocols. As you would say “scientifically”, set you your own epistemology.
In a world of infinite choices, are we on our own? Yes, pretty much.
Must we make choices? Always.
Don’t worry I will get that peer reviewed on Reddit!