This Is the End


Markets, Risk and Human Interaction

July 25, 2011

Condemned to be Free?

In my last post I discuss weak links, and explore the idea that as society and capitalism develop, those links will disappear, so everything will coalesce into a single, strongly linked network. We will all share the same information and culture, and consume the same products. But there is an alternative possibility, which is that being awash in so much information, we each will filter it in our own way. We all draw from the same bottomless pit, but each of us seeing different cuts of that information, and thus, post-filtering, occupying different worlds.
A recent book, The Filter Bubble, discusses the mechanics and the implications of such personalized filters. It views an emerging world where there are filters between us and the Internet that are developed by entities beyond our control, tapping a database of our searches, purchases, and “friends”. Emerging might be too tentative a word. Personalized filtering already exists. Witness the fact that your Google search will bring up different results than will mine; that the friends highlighted on your Facebook account, or the e-mails that percolate up to be deemed important, or the stories that arrive in your news feed, not to mention the obvious, the ads that you see, are already based on these filters. The filters color our view of the world and serve us the food for our thoughts.
There is a good reason for filters. We are hopelessly engulfed by an ocean of information. Eric Schmidt has said, "There was 5 exabytes [an exabyte = a quintillion bytes] of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003, but that much information is now created every 2 days, and the pace is increasing”. (Though not everyone agrees with this, and in any case, a lot of it is made up of inane YouTube videos and forgettable tweets, e-mails, friend updates, …and rehashed blog posts).
Personalized filtering started off to better target advertising, though I wonder if a longer term result will be for personalized filtering to destroy the advertising-based business model widely employed in the search and social networking arena. Businesses pay to advertise on sites like Google and Facebook in order to get out information about their products. Yet the raison d'etre for the likes of Google and Facebook is as a platform for finding and distributing information. If the information that is being distributed in the course of their business is the same information that the advertisers are paying them to distribute, then these sites are feeding on their own seed stock. And this circumstance is made more likely because of the increasingly widespread use of personalized filters.
What happens if the personalized filters get us what we want to know without anyone having to pay to tell us? Will the free flow of information dominate the value, (it certainly will dominate the amount), of the information the advertisers pay to distribute?
I bet that once these algorithms are in full bloom, you will be able to type in “I need a new pair of sandals for the beach. What should I get", or “what are some fun things for me to look at in terms of accessories”. (Or maybe even “I'm bored, have two hours to kill, so what should I do right now"). The algorithm will look at what you have bought in the past, and what of that you have returned versus reordered, bought on sale or were willing to buy at full price. It will look at the same for your friends, weighted by their closeness to you and their relevance for your purchase. If you spend time keeping up with Shakira, it will look at what she and her circle are up to. It will look at a lot more as well, and then up will pop a bunch of links tailored for your preferences. As the algorithmic searches get better and better, the paid ads will be increasingly irrelevant.
I want to go beyond the prosaic issue of the implications of personalized filtering for the future of advertising to think about a deeper, existential issue: how personalized filters might affect our notion of individual freedom.
Memory of All Things Past
Ireneo was nineteen years old; he had been born in 1868; he seemed as monumental as bronze, more ancient than Egypt, anterior to the prophecies and the pyramids. It occurred to me that each one of my works (each one of my gestures) would live on in his implacable memory; I was benumbed by the fear of multiplying superfluous gestures. – Jorge Luis Borges' “Funes, the Memorious”, translated by Anthony Kerrigan.
For better or worse, there is a lot of information about you – events, associations, purchases and travel, and a lot of communications and pictures – that is stored somewhere or other. If all goes according to plan, we will not only know everything that is going on in the world day by day, we will have a perfect memory of the past. Surprisingly, the result, a virtual version of perfect memory, can be a problem, and the only way out of that problem is to employ a filter of some sort.
In Borges' Funes the Memorious, Ireneo Funes recovers consciousness after a fall from a horse to discover that he has perfect memory. He can recount ever facet of every day, he can summon a vision of every person he has met from every perspective in which he saw them. He finds it difficult to come to terms with the fact that those different people, each recalled in full detail and within all the events surrounding the encounter, are in fact the same person viewed at different times.
Borges wrote that Ireneo was “almost incapable of general, platonic ideas. It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front). His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him on every occasion.“
Funes's world was a jumble of the particulars that affected his ability to think, because thinking requires seizing on what is important to the context and, at least for the moment forgetting the rest. (Related to this, there was a medical study that demonstrated an inability to filter out memories causes decreased mental performance and lower intelligence, though I can't remember the details).
For a real-life example there is the mnemonist Solomon Shereshevsky, who simply went by “S”. S. was a newspaper reporter. One day his editor gave him lengthy instructions of places to go, people to meet and information to gather. The editor, noticing that S. had not written down any of the instructions, was about to reprimand him for his inattentiveness, but S. repeated back everything exactly that he was assigned to do. The editor probed him more closely on his memory, and amazed by his abilities, sent him to a psychological laboratory that was focused on the investigation of memory. There S. met the psychologist Alexsander Luria, who would study him for the next thirty years and write about the process behind his mnemonic gifts.
Luria found himself unable to measure the capacity of S.'s memory. S. could surmount anything Luria put in his path. Luria read to him as many as 30 words, numbers, or letters and asked him to repeat these. He recalled them all. Luria increased the number to 50, then to 70, but S. still could recall them and even repeat them in reverse order. It didn't matter whether he was presented words with meaning or nonsense words. Fifteen years after their first meeting, Luria asked S. to reproduce the series of words, numbers, or letters from that first meeting. S. sat, his eyes closed, and recalled the situation:
“yes-yes … this happened with us at that apartment … you sat at the table, and I was in the rocking-chair … you were wearing a gray dress suit and looked at me like this … here … I see what you were saying to me …” – and afterward followed an flawless reproduction of the read row. Even more amazing is that by that time S. had become a famous mnemonist and was required to remember many hundreds and thousands of rows.
As with Ireneo, S. had a poor memory for faces. "People's faces are constantly changing," he said; "it's the different shades of expression that confuse me and make it so hard to remember faces" Details that other people would forget occupied his mind, making it hard to move from the flow of images and sensations to some higher level of awareness such as abstraction, and meaning. He perceived the changes of faces the way we might perceive constantly changing light and shadow, like looking at the ripples of a pond or eddies of a river.
Also, like Ireneo, with a memory composed entirely of details, S. couldn't think on an abstract level. He could recite a story word for word, but could not easily summarize it. When required to go beyond the information given, such as understanding metaphors, puns or symbolism, S. was out to sea.
If a story was read quickly, S. would become perplexed, “No this is too much… every word gives rise to images and they find each other and there is chaos…I cannot make anything out of it..and there is also your voice and also spots…and everything blends together...”
Escape from Freedom
I suspect...that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details. – Jorge Luis Borges' “Funes, the Memorious”, translated by Anthony Kerrigan.
Perfect memory impairs the mind's ability to abstract, to infer, and to learn. Moreover, the nature of memory is not simply storing and retrieving. It is also part of the creative process. We make up memories through inferences and reconstruct them into new ideas.
Yet we are developing perfect memory. Perfect memory of everything that has happened anywhere, that anyone has experienced. For a computer, nothing is lost. We could end up like S., knowing everything and as a result lose all context. So the next step for the Googles of the world (which is pretty much to say, Google) is to find a way to distil and synthesize that information.
Cognitive limitations both constrain and enable adaptive behavior. There is a point where more information and more cognitive processing can actually do harm, the possibility of perfect memory giving us the extreme case. Built-in limitations can in fact be beneficial, enabling new functions that would be absent without them.
Imagine sitting by the fireplace with Ireneo as he recounts an amusing incident from his past. He relates every single fact related to the event. Every detail of the room, every gesture of all those attending, each word spoken. Without the filtering, the story is lost, or, more precisely, it is stripped of context. There is no way to tell, in the description he provides, what really matters. Such a story is meaningless, as is such a life. We need filters to think and to experience the world.
Perfect memory is like having all the past also be the present which in turn is like living totally in the trivial of the present. And not just learn something new, but also view the object with a different perspective.
To see an object in a thoughtful way we ignore some of its characteristics; we let some things come into focus while letting the rest recede into the background. We encounter and filter things based on our objectives and interests; the tree of a botanist is not the tree of the artist. So, more broadly, the world is meaningful to us only when we see it in a context, and this means electing to ignore some aspects of it. Meaning emerges only by highlighting some features while relegating to the shadows those that are irrelevant to our context.
The world we create through our willing and selective ignorance is what Sartre calls “nihilation”. We are like a sculptor that creates his work by removing part of a slab of stone. To see a world of individual things meaningfully related to one another is to elevate part of the perceptual field to the foreground and to relegate other parts of it to an undifferentiated background. Otherwise it all exists too completely; some parts of that existence have to be negated for it to become the subject of thought. To know everything, to remember everything, is not the mark of intelligence.
To think, we first choose what to look at and what to ignore. This is what Sartre meant by the statement “we are condemned to be free”. In taking over this task, the personalized filter takes our freedom as well. If filtering is part of thinking, then taking over the filtering also takes over how we think.
Filtering is essential to cognitive performance and intelligence. It determines our behavior and is an expression of our free will. Up until recently, our brains were the only filters, and then we started to use machine-based filters (to do things like pick the characteristics for people who would pop up on a dating site). Those filters were were simple and easy to understand. But now these artificial filters are becoming so complex and pervasive that they are performing our precognition, at least as far as what we see and do online.
There may be some merit to computers taking over this function. Maybe they can do it better. Perhaps these filters are just computationally more powerful versions of our own cognitive filters, just as computers already are more powerful versions of other cognitive functions. But the filters are not under our control, we may not even be aware that they are whirring around, and even if we do, we won't understand how they are deciding what to allow through the filter for our consideration. Of course, it is not as if we are about to be subjugated by self-aware computers. Not-aware. But aware of us, intimately so.