Roger Ebert, not engines

:: technology

I’ve owned a couple TiVos over the years. The first thing I do on setup? Turn off the suggestions.

The HBO series Mind of the Married Man joked about this a decade ago: “My TiVo Thinks I’m Gay”.

Although I love NetFlix I also find their recommendations underwhelming.

About the only film recommendations I ever find valuable are from a friend or someone like Roger Ebert, who sadly just passed away yesterday.

Why? Precisely because the recommendations aren’t limited to what I already like.

This is the fundamental flaw with TiVo suggestions, NetFlix recommendations, Facebook’s fucking “Suggested Posts”, Twitter promoted tweets, Amazon’s you-may-have-clicked-on-something-like-this, and so on.

The problem isn’t the recommendation engines, even though they could and should be improved. The problem is the premise of the whole model: That I want more of the same. That I want to live in a bubble.

I’m not claiming to be a special snowflake, floating above the masses. I think everyone wants some level of novelty. People may differ in the amount and frequency of novelty. But for most mentally healthy folks, not wanting to be bored out of our skulls is a fairly basic need. Speaking of Roger Ebert, here is one of the many awesome things he said:

What I believe is that all clear-minded people should remain two things throughout their lifetimes: curious and teachable.

The other thing is, people go through phases. It may well be the case that, for a month, I want to inhale everything related to a given topic or genre. During that window, the recommendation engines might be more helpful. Which is why it’s worthwhile to improve them. Just don’t use them as the 24/7/365 model to predict what I’ll like.

I’ve realized this is another reason why I’m disappointed about Google giving the finger to Atom/RSS feeds. They seem to have the idea that they can choose better than me, what I’ll want to read. It appears they want to join the giving-me-dubious-suggestions party. And they want me to join the party, too—and want it so badly they’re taking away my LA privileges.

Supposedly “you are what you eat”. You’re also what you read and watch. That’s why I want feeds. I want to feed myself. I don’t want to live in Google’s (or Facebook’s or whomever’s) Monsanto-inspired monoculture. Not even in a supposedly “personalized” monoculture.

“Oh, but you can still visit whatever web site you wish.” Yeah, but as The Dead Kennedys said, give me convenience or give me death. The point isn’t possibility, it’s feasibility. With limited time, feeds are a way to keep up with a variety of sites. And although I don’t hate typing or pasting URIs in the browser bar, I’m in the minority. Plus even I don’t want to type the URI when it means banging glass on a mobile device.

So in a computing future where we’re increasingly swiping and tappping — or glancing and blinking — the question matters more, not less. What’s the source of this stuff? Are we eating what we choose, or what’s chosen for us using a model with a flawed premise about who we are?