Algorithms Overwhelm Human Critics
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Google is not ours. Which feels confusing, because we are its unpaid content-providers, in one way or another. We generate product for Google, our every search a minuscule contribution. Google is made of us, a sort of coral reef of human minds and their products.
August 31, 2010 “Google’s Earth” New York Times Op Ed By WILLIAM GIBSON
If you need any proof there’s a cold war raging between collaborative filtering algorithms and human arts reviewers, and that the algorithms are winning, pick up a copy of the Spectrum liftout in Saturday’s edition of The Sydney Morning Herald. Turn to the music reviews, this week on pages 22 and 23. All of the short music reviews end with LIKE THIS? TRY THESE recommendations that I found just plain creepy when I noticed them a few months ago. A human reviewer aping Amazon.com’s CUSTOMERS WHO BOUGHT THIS ALSO BOUGHT THESE recommendations? The featured review has a pie chart of relative values that seem like a data set that an algorithm might consult to generate the BOUGHT THAT? BUY THIS recommendations.
Collaborative filtering algorithms suggest possible paths users might take through gargantuan databases. Another term for them is “social information filtering”. Algorithms are roughly equivalent to Coca Cola’s recipe and are jealously guarded. The general idea, though, is that your data is folded into the larger set of data provided by all users of the system, to suggest items you might be likely to buy on the assumption that humans are predictable, which, apparently, they’ve proved we mostly are. It used to be just YOUR data but now Amazon.com and Apple are pulling in social networking services. Amazon.com is running a beta test with Facebook so that you can be guided by the recommendations of your friends. Apple has introduced a social network, Ping, into iTunes 10 that’s mostly connected to the outside world through Twitter (tech blogs have unconfirmed reports of a deal between Apple and Facebook falling apart).
Amazon.com’s Adsense is the collaborative filtering algorithm closest to what a newspaper is, a collection of information surrounded by advertisements for stuff and services. The Sydney Morning Herald’s algorithmic approximations seemed to me to imply that any dividing line between advertising and editorial had irrevocably broken down, and, like Amazon.com, they’d serve up marketing suggestions within the general body of information. I recognised that it wasn’t the fault of the critics, that they were operating within a formula probably forced upon them by the business side of the newspapers rather than the editors, but yesterday was the first time I had a sense of the cost to the reviewers.
What an algorithm ‘wants’ is for you to feel so comfortable with the information it provides that you’ll make a purchase. What a reviewer should do is surprise, unsettle, or even just plant a seed. On Saturday Jazz critic John Shand reviewed Royal Toast by The Claudia Quintet a band he aligned with the sensibilities of Frank Zappa. His review was informed by having also seen them perform when they toured Australia in May. Jazz is my favourite music and the place where rock and roll overlaps with jazz particularly fascinates me : for example, Gil Evans’s arrangement of the music of Jimi Hendrix, the Laughing Clowns, The Bad Plus’s versions of songs by Blondie and Nirvana, and Cassandra Wilson’s interpretation of Miles Davis’s interpretation of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”.
I read The Sydney Morning Herald over coffee. I called up the previews of The Claudia Quintet’s album on iTunes and wanted to hear more. A quick Google search told me that they’d been at the Melbourne Jazz Festival, another plus, I admire its broad and adventurous perspective. So a critic had introduced me to something I might not have found on my own. And the LIKE THIS? TRY THESE recommendations turned out not to be marketing suggestions, or at least not very effective ones – Burnt Weeny Sandwich by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention and Bravo Nina Rota by The Umbrellas aren’t available through iTunes and The Umbrellas CD is hard to track down.
And of Bernard Zuel’s review of Grinderman 2? It’s not what I hear but that’s not what’s at issue here. It’s that the pie chart detail – 28% the Devil, 28% the Clown, 28% Birthday Party, 16% Hubert Selby jr – doesn’t allow the critic to explain his references. Whatever I divine of the Birthday Party in Grinderman is on a distorted feedback loop fed into the inspiration Warren Ellis drew from them when he was forming the Dirty Three and back through Nick Cave’s admiration for the Dirty Three. And I wouldn’t say clown but ‘clowns’, Grinderman’s sound has an electrifying texture that aligns with new Bad Seed Ed Kuepper’s revived Laughing Clowns. But we’ll likely never know what Bernard Zuel means by his references.
ALGORITHMS SUGGEST CONTENT ENHANCEMENT FOR BLOG POSTS
A few weeks ago the blogging platform WordPress announced a new feature from a company called Zemanta that would “enhance” posts with “relevant images, videos, and links”.
“We analyse your post through our proprietary natural language processing and semantic algorithms, and statistically compare its contextual framework to our preindexed database of comment.”
The language used by companies seeking to elevate the perspicacity of their algorithms, and inspire us to trust their insights while not giving anything away about how they work is worthy of examination by Don Watson, who has so entertainingly dissected the language corporations misuse.
I don’t use Zemanta for my posts. I prefer to forage for my own “contextual framework” but here’s my concern: how do we fact check the preindexed database?
Venture Capitalist Fred Wilson, whose company Union Square Ventures invests in Zemanta wrote in a blog post:
“If you think about it, Zemanta is ‘adwords for content creators’ … The obvious things would be monetization services (affiliate links, text ads, and even graphical ads), widgets and badges, video, quotes and music.”
I read Fred Wilson’s blog and find him to be thoughtful and engaged and he has a good sense of the eventual usefulness of services that are inscrutable at first and incubates them by allowing them to naturally find their users and establish themselves by being useful. He uses the services he invests in and I deeply admire two of them, the hyperlocal news aggregator Outside.in and Twitter. At the time he invested in them people couldn’t figure out how or why they’d be useful. But this is what you might get if you take an adwords approach to content. This is from Google’s description of its Adsense program:
“Adsense for content automatically trawls the content of your pages and delivers ads (you can choose both text or image ads) that are relevant to your audience and your site content, ads so well matched, in fact, that your readers will actually find them useful … You earn money whenever your visitors click on them.”
This is a small test I’ve made, conducted at random, to suggest that algorithms have difficulty assessing irony and establishing context.
I rely on The New York Times movie reviews. I almost always disagree with their perspective on the movies that become important to me – Blade Runner, Dr Strangelove, Moon – so I now look for their negative reviews to see if there’s something in there I’d like. This is the first paragraph of the 1964 review for Dr Strangelove:
“Stanley Kubrick’s new film, called Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to stop worrying and Love the Bomb, is beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I’ve come across. And I say that with full recollection of some of the grim ones I’ve heard from Mort Sahl, some of the cartoons I’ve seen by Charles Addams, and some of the stuff I’ve read in MAD Magazine.”
The AdSense ad running next to the Dr Strangelove review:
“Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time” by Santana.
The AdSense ads running next to the review of Blade Runner:
For acting classes for would be movie actors in Sydney, the movie review section of the Brisbane Times and an Australian production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives.
An AdSense ad running next to the story about Prime Minister Julia Gillard naming former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as Foreign Minister:
International Flight Sale, tickets to London from $1899.