Algorithmic Feed Dreams

Strange Algorithmic Feed Dreams

I went to bed a little too late last night.

I watched the movie Morbius and was surprised: from the social media and critical reviews, I had expected a terrible movie. It was fine, probably better and certainly more unique than most Marvel fare. Classic themes and archetypes explored: siblings, parents, lovers, relationships, hopes, hubris, tragedy. Then I lost a half hour to twitter. I don’t remember what I read – it must have been pointless.

The sun woke me too early, in the middle of a strange dream. I recall fragments. A strange room with dark timber frames and white walls and hardwood floor, where I talked with a woman. Perhaps she was a kind of therapist-shaman-elf? We talked about parents and family and how it is important to have shoes that fit.

I went back to bed, and as I woke up, I had had a second strange dream. I was in a marioland, jumping around collecting mushrooms and coins. It was very important to have the correct shoes that fit. Mushroom shoes. Tanuki shoes. Orange shoes. And once you had the shoes, you had to carry them with you. Unfortunately, I only had a garbage bag for carrying my shoes. This struck me as pretty poor game design – it wasn’t fun jumping about while carrying a garbage bag filled with pairs of shoes.

In this second dream, I came upon the room from the first dream, but now it was completely re-decorated, with mementos and souvenirs of the woman I had talked to in the first dream. A second persona was there. First I thought she was my wife, but once she opened her mouth, I realized she wasn’t.

“Is this what you really want? This other woman? Her flowers? Her photos? Her ideas?”

I started flailing for words and excuses, not least of which ran along the lines of, “What the hell are you talking about? This isn’t even my room! I was jumping around marioland, but it’s tiring to do with a garbage bag, so I thought I would rest at this house.”

Then I woke up and thought how weird it was and pondered about the memories and patterns and ideas surfacing in my mind as I prepare for fatherhood. I thought of writing about them as I made my coffee. Then I sat down, and briefly checked twitter, and I lost 15 minutes and forgot what I was thinking about.

When I looked up, I realized my coffee was tepid and my mind was wiped.

I told my wife, “It just hit me. Social media is like booze. You drink it, and you forget yourself.”

Then I went and deactivated my twitter browsing account and deleted the crappiest apps off my devices.

The Algorithmic Feed Room

The strange room in my dreams was an allegory for the algorithmic feed. The “For You” tab in twitter, the homepage in youtube, the slurry stream in facebook. I’d recently listened to several psychology and therapy videos on youtube, and now my whole youtube is a-wallow in self-help and counseling videos. I’d read through the tweets of a fellow on twitter, and now it was full of his and similar very-political very-angry takes. I confess, I don’t check my facebook stream.

The room’s transformation between the first dream, where I discussed my relationship with my father with the strange woman, and the second dream, where it was filled with souvenirs of the woman captured the numbing stupidity of algorithmic feeds, which assume that the surface activity of a person is the totality of a person’s being. An idea of people as shells without souls.

The persona that I met in the second dream was this psychotic mindset made dream-flesh. Accusing, projecting, jealous, demanding, “I know you! I saw what you did! So I know what is going on in your mind! You talked with that woman, so you want that woman, because that is how humans work!”

Except, that is not at all how humans work.

If I eat an ice cream, if I like to eat ice cream, does not mean I want to eat ice cream or keep being reminded of ice cream. If I eat an ice cream today, it doesn’t mean I will eat one tomorrow, or a week from now. If I read Mein Kampf (hi, Godwin’s Law), it doesn’t mean I’ll want to buy a hakenkreuz-themed stahlhelm tomorrow and then go marching with a tiki torch the day after.

But this is complex and requires an appreciation of nuance, and the blaring algorithmic feed does not do nuance.

[Self-]Selection for the Algorithmic Feed

I doubt I am very unusual. I have some good sides, and some flaws. I understand some things about myself, and not others. I am usually consistent, but sometimes inconsistent. Some things I believe strongly, others not so much, yet others I don’t care. My likes change with context and time and situation.

The psychotic algorithm that tries to nail me down for an advertising billboard makes me feel uncomfortable and nauseous. So I leave, I lose interest, I cut my time on social media, I delete the apps (then slink back on the browser).

Is it possible that the people who seem to thrive in the social media environment, have personalities that make them especially suited to an environment that rewards shouting, blustering, overstrong opinions, calcified convictions, violent passions, and a monomaniacal fixation on their own voice?

If it is the case that there are personalities that thrive in the social media environment, then perhaps this says more about those people (and their personalities), than about the quality of their insights.

Distrust the Agents of Passion

Over the last half-dozen years I’ve developed a few rough heuristics for handling information online. One of them is this:

Distrust anyone who’s trying to make you feel very angry or very scared.

Wittingly, or unwittingly, they’re trying to pull a fast one and convince you to do or believe something you normally wouldn’t.

The Importance of Politeness

Here’s another rule of thumb:

Distrust people who are rude for no reason.

If they can disrespect one person, they can disrespect any person. Maybe they’re acting respectfully towards you just because they think you have the same opinions as them. What if your opinions change?

Of course, exercise sense. If someone’s country has been invaded, they are justifiably angry with their invader. 

Crappy or Abusive

I mentioned I’d listened to (and read) a bunch of therapist and doctors expounding on different aspects of personalities, dysfunctions, relationships, behaviors, and whatnot.

I kept being struck by the wide gradient of behaviors and attitudes and patterns labeled as, simply, abusive. From a violent person beating their lover black and blue, to low-grade snark and neglect, everything was abuse.

I really felt the lack of a word to capture things that are “crappy.” The kinds of things both individuals and couples and groups do, which are definitely not ok, but do not fall neatly into the divison of perpetrator and victim that the word abuse implies.

It’s not dysfunction – these things can be very functional (codependence comes to mind) – but it is crappy. It would certainly always be better if the crappy stuff wasn’t there, but it’s not “end-of-the-world” bad. It’s bearable bad. Like an intestinal parasite. You really don’t want a worm in your guts, but it does have some functional side-effects, like fewer allergies and that worm-thin chic look from the 2070s.

I’m not trying to condone crappy things. I’m really not. They annoy the heck out of me.

I just want a way to talk about them that makes a clear distinction between a person threatening their partner with a knife (alarm bells!) and a person who keeps calling their partner a “cretin” and saying they’re lucky anyone wants to be with them (very crappy).

Covering that whole spectrum with “abuse” makes the bad stuff seem less bad, and the small crappy stuff seem bigger and harder to tackle than it should.

Would be happy to learn that there are words for this and I’m just unaware.

The Crappy-Decent Axis

I’ve come up with a rough yardstick for social media humans.

About 25% are crappy. These are best blocked and banned on sight.

About 50% are so-so. Acting decently and encouraging decent behavior will usually make them behave decently.

About 25% are decent. These will reliably act decently no matter what.

Crucially, over the last half-dozen years, I’ve realized that a lot of people make excuses for crappy people who (they think) share their opinions and beliefs.

This is really bad, because it means the crappies proliferate and the decents log-off and leave.

The recent bluecheck stuff on twitter is really interesting, because it’s supercharging crappies and pushing them consistently to the top of replies. It’s certainly making it easier for me to leave and stay left.

Communism Still Sucks

For people who weren’t born in a communist country: it sucked. The ideology still sucks. It doesn’t work. The ideas of marxism-leninism are great, except for the terminal flaw that they’re designed for eusocial insects not social primates.

This is just a reminder, because folks should come up with something to fit the current reality, not try to retrofit a failed 150-year-old idea because just maybe this time it would work. It won’t.

The Pandemic Is Over

Or close enough. According to the WHO anyway. It has felt over for a while now. That was a weird ride. I almost can’t remember it now, a lacuna in my memory, but it happened anyway.

I got some things very wrong. I didn’t expect China to fail to vaccinate its elderly, fail to figure out how to end lockdowns, then just throw its arms up and say “fuck it” and then refuse to count covid deaths. That was intensely weird. They mobilized so many people, built hospitals, maintained this whole intense system and then just … shrug. It’s a weird corollary for how they have this huge, powerful economy, and then just the worst soft power. No culture exports to speak of, terrible relations with all their neighbors, an inability to do nuance in diplomacy. Really weird.

I had no idea how intensely political the whole mask thing would become. That so many people would basically forget and move on so fast, while others would make masks-or-not-masks a core part of their identity. That was super weird.

Finally, I’ve got to say, on balance the government here in South Korea did a great job. Compared to Europe, thanks to testing and tracking and masks, most everything stayed open and we only had a roughly three-week lockdown (with cafes closed) in late 2020. Otherwise, eh.

On a personal level, I got through the corona with three vaccines and one case of covid last April. It wasn’t that terrible, roughly like a few days of hangovers, but I have experienced more fatigue since then. However, whether that’s the covid or age or the crippling achilles injury I suffered last May (and all the stress that brought with it, including not walking normally for 6 months) … well, hard to tell. I did see others suffer more, some much more, and others completely unfazed.

So it went.

I guess now I understand how the Spanish Flu pandemic was basically forgotten. I’ve also learned that I (and most other people) understand much less of the world than we think, and that it pays to be humble in the face of our ignorance. I’ve also learned that a lot of people will choose to be self-righteous instead. Perhaps that will make them feel less small and ignorant. But feelings don’t reality make.

So it goes.

Russia Still Sucks

I can’t believe those genocidal fools are still trying to destroy Ukraine. Jesus Christ on a rocking chair. I’m starting to think that if this goes on long enough, the Russians in exile opposed to the war would be best served by just renaming themselves, maybe to Novgorodians or something. Put some nominative distance between themselves and the war.

There are many good Ukrainian charities you can support, which help the war effort. Alternatively, you can follow Patron the Sapper Dog and find ways to help there.

Slava Ukrajini, as we say.

The Weather Is Nice

It’s been a really nice spring. I hope you’ve managed to enjoy it. There’s just something so soothing about seeing, smelling, touching fresh growing plants. A good reminder that life is sacred.

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