We Do Not Know What We Do Not Know and We Do Not Know That We Don’t Know It

Shrinking world
Shrinking world

Continuing from my post yesterday that spoke largely of one specific area, that one being politics, and how we increasingly only hear what we want to hear (What Algorithms Do Not Know and What We Do Not See) because of the web and its intense focus on personalization …This is an issue much broader than the political realm. It is everything.

This personal web experience alters what see (and know) about the world around us. Inevitably, it narrows our worldview. As an example, I have found in the last few years my search results increasingly lacking.

I can tell by those results I get that they have been tailored for me (to use a term often used in describing personal results). More and more often now, they are not what I am looking for and I find them frustrating. I end up trying numerous variations of the search but often have no luck.

It is as if the wide open world has closed up and what was once a wide ranging landscape has been cordoned off to a much smaller area.

One of the troubling consequences of this is that we do not know what we do not know. I wrote about this back in 2009 saying, “…sometimes I don’t realize I’ve been looking for something until I find it.” (See, Algorithms and the Search for Happy Accidents.)

I call them happy accidents because in the past I have found intriguing things online simply by getting a much broader range of results. If you don’t know something exists, how can you search for it? If you haven’t got something in your profile that indicates an interest, something in the oodles of data companies amass on each of us, how will it ever show up?

It won’t. And because it won’t you may never know about it even though, if you were to stumble upon it, it might be one of the most interesting things you’ve come across. It may open up an entire new dimension to your life, if you only knew about it.

In my 2009 post I asked for (and still do) an option that allows a person to turn the personalization off. I don’t ask for it to be eliminated, just for an ability to toggle between two views of whatever the particular platform happens to be.

Without a means to see the world as it is, rather than how we would have it be, we live in an isolationist, even xenophobic bubble that has no resemblance to reality.

There is a TED video by Eli Pariser, “…author of “The Filter Bubble,” about how personalized search might be narrowing our worldview”. It’s from 2011 and it articulates the problem very well (You can read the transcript here):

Is this a problem? Yes. What we see online is growing isolationism, tribalism, and the closing of minds. Pariser puts it well in his conclusion when he says, “We need it [the Web] to introduce us to new ideas and new people and different perspectives. And it’s not going to do that if it leaves us all isolated in a Web of one.”

We will cease to discover. We won’t encounter views that conflict with our own. It will be as if we are in  a courtroom listening to one of two sides present their argument and never hear the opposing side’s.

Our world(s) will get much smaller.

See Also:


What Algorithms Do Not Know and What We Do Not See

Page source view of Facebook
Page source view of Facebook

When the editor is an algorithm you’ve got trouble. Several days ago all my news feeds were peppered with variations of the same story: a Conservative Party supporter losing his temper and using profanity in an encounter with reporters.

It was everywhere because a) it was the kind of spectacle story people inevitably give their attention to, not unlike a traffic accident, and b) all those arcane algorithms the many technology based companies use had decided it was what I wanted to see.

Those feeds were specific to me because those algorithms are ubiquitous and due to the many factors used in creating them (which are only dimly understood) they had correctly divined my political leanings and had concluded that this story was one that would appeal to me.

However, what they did not divine was how often I wanted to see the story and, more significantly, how I felt about the story.

I thought it was trivial horseshit.

Worse than that, I thought it fed into the simplified, erroneous caricature of people with a particular political leaning – Conservative. It made people who do not support the Conservative Party feel good. It confirmed for those people a simplistic view of those who do not agree with them. It made those Tories laughable and, much more troubling, allowed those left of centre to turn off their brains and do what they accuse Conservatives of doing: fall back on ideology, cant, and back patting.

The failure of these algorithms is in what we see and what we do not see. Politics is an easy example of how it distorts the way the world appears to us. People I know span the entirety of the political spectrum yet I see far more online from friends with leanings left of centre than I do of those friends on the right of things. I check, and those on the right are still posting but they seldom appear in my feeds. This began a few years ago, I think.

This isn’t something most people I know would even think about. If they did, many would be fine because they have no interest in hearing from people with opinions they don’t agree with.

But for me it means the world that emerges from these feeds is one I cannot trust (unless I am trusting that it is all horseshit). I do not believe people on either the right or the left of issues are stupid, unthinking, evil, crass, buffoons … or any of the other ways ideologies would have us characterize those who don’t agree with us.

I also believe that some very fundamental issues do not and will not get credibly discussed and debated during the current election (like Canadian democracy) because no one is interested in what the other side says, no one hears from the other side because our news is managed by code, and we will all move like automata into the voting booths on election day and later be bewildered by the results because we had no idea anyone supported “those guys.”

Nothing is as frightening or misleading on the Internet as what we do not get to see.

See Also:

We Like People and Stories

Content Warehouse
Content Warehouse

We continually see references to content. It’s spoken of as if it’s a tangible quantity, something measurable, a thing you can stock the shelves with.

In the case of the Internet, it would be shelves on the web and social media platforms. Posts and tweets and fan pages. We know we have it because it’s in the spreadsheet and we’ve done some number crunching with the data. But what is it?

Content is ideas. Content is ideas presented in a variety of ways. Content is one person saying to another, “What do you think about this?”

Content is always two-way. If you’re on one side of it, the creator side, it helps a lot if you know who is on the other side. You can be as imperative as you like and stress your call to action repeatedly, but if you’re talking about cricket to fanatical hockey fans, you are wasting your time.

Let’s be honest, no business likes content. It’s just that our customers seem to and so we’re forced to come up with some. But it is so mercurial, so difficult to nail down and define, it makes us crazy. It involves creativity. For heaven’s sake, it’s even artsy sometimes. How the hell do you measure that? How do you replicate it? How do you build efficiencies into it?

I think the first step is to stop thinking about it as content. When we say “content,” I believe we implicitly think in terms of our business goals. Counter intuitive as it may seem, that is probably the worst way to think of it. When we talk in terms of movies, books, cartoons, comics, articles and all the other various forms “content” comes in, we start to think from a consumer point of view. A people point of view.

People don’t always think in terms of their goals. Sometimes they like something simply because it’s “neat.” Neat doesn’t necessarily mean gimmicky. An idea or story can be “neat” because it shows us something we tend to think of one way in a completely new way. That isn’t just neat, it’s informative and it’s stimulating.

Sometimes that is all people want. In fact, I’d say most of the time that is all people want.

Do you actually use the web and social media tools? If so, do you use them in the same way your spouse, kids and friends do? That alone should give you some intuitive sense for what people are online for and what they find engaging.

No one is looking for content. Most people are looking for people and ideas. They’re looking for stories and stories come in a wide range of forms: video, pictures, words and sound.

Content is not king. It’s the rabble. It’s us. And we’re not interested in content.

We like people and stories.

(This was originally posted in a slightly different form five years ago in March of 2010.)

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Come Fly With Me? No Thanks

The following was written on January 24, 2005 at 28,000 feet somewhere above the Canadian Rockies. I had been sent to Vancouver for meetings. I just found this old piece, which was originally written in a notebook, and it made me laugh. It first appeared on an old version of Writelife and it goes like this …

JetI hate flying. I hate, hate, hate it. So whenever our office calls a meeting in Vancouver I jump through hoops in an effort to find a way out of attending.

I’m seldom successful.

As far as I’ve been able to determine, the only time I enjoy flying is when I’m drunk. Then, it’s not so much an enjoyable experience as it is a desensitized one. It occurs to me it is often the absence of a quality that recommends something.

I think an absence of turbulence would recommend flying. Not so on my flight.

You may laugh. But try writing longhand when the damn plane is bouncing like an old Pontiac Laurentian over back country roads. (By the way … if you’re in a 737, avoid seat 21A – window seat, right at the back. It’s like riding in that Laurentian’s trunk.)

You know, when you remove the element of speed from the flying equation you find there is little left on the upside. If you were making a list of flying’s best qualities, it would begin:

  1. Transports people between places quickly.

Then the list would end.

There is nothing else good about flying. And given the hold ups these days with security clearances, false alarms, weather delays and so on, flight’s key benefit – speed – is kind of a crapshoot. Your flight may be fast; maybe not.

Even when flying is fast, it feels real slow because it begins and ends with airports, which are Bermuda Triangles of lost time. Airports are the answer to the age-old question, “Where does the time go?”

So why do we do it? Or more to the point, why do we do so much of it? Why the rush? It is as if we were obsessed with terminal tedium (where we seem to spend ages standing around waiting).

It’s because we think flying is fast and we are determined to get to wherever we want to go as fast as we possibly can. But it’s like trying to remove the discomfort of a dull headache by knocking yourself unconscious with a hammer.

(Posted on January 29, 2005 at 09:56 AM)


Cover art for To Your Scattered Bodies Go.
Cover art for To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

Very briefly … I read this so many years ago it must have been in another life. I’ve reread the first book now, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, and I’m a few chapters into the second, The Fabulous Riverboat. And it is as I remember.

The second is the better book, perhaps because of the Mark Twain character. The first, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, features Sir Richard Francis Burton – a seemingly good figure to use based on his biography but the book ends up being a scattered mess, if you’ll pardon the choice of words.

The book has an interesting conceit (the dead resurrected along an enormous, world encircling river) but its pulp roots make the action/plot just a series of loosely credible fights, battles, and caricatures doing some pretty lame philosophizing. Character depth is not the book’s strong suit.

But it is a good example of old school SF pulp fiction. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for a particularly engaging read. Hopefully The Fabulous Riverboat holds up better.

(3 stars based on the hope Riverboat actually is a better book.)

Riverworld, the current edition (2015), which contains both To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat.
Riverworld, the current edition which contains both To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat.

Still Life by Louise Penny: A Review

Cover of Still Life by Louise PennyReading Still Life was a curious reading experience for me. The first three paragraphs had me. The murder victim, the crime, and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec are all introduced. Then the scene shifts.

The business of exposition begins and we are given the village and people of Three Pines, the all but hidden and seemingly idyllic community in the eastern townships of Quebec. Louise Penny creates a very vivid image here. And I was immediately put-off by it.

I remember thinking something like, “Oh, heaven help us. It’s one of those earnestly Canadian novels, tediously in love with the landscape and effusive about the gentle, polite people.” (I was wrong.)

The book moves back and forth between the compellingly interesting Gamache and the anything but compelling (for me) evocation of Three Pines. So for about the first third of the book I was a less than willing reader. But I was determined to give it a chance.

It’s a good thing I did because slowly, inevitably, my predisposition to dislike it evaporated as the book’s mystery got its hooks into me. And after a time I realized that the world the author was creating was a deliberate one meant for the contrast of a gentle village against a murder that speaks to something very dark beneath the surface. If I recall correctly, Agatha Christie did this kind of thing all the time.

Three Pines is a community filled with aging baby boomers. There’s a love of food, antiques, art, crafts … not a lot of computer programmers here or accountants or garbage men and women (though they must exist). Perhaps this explains my initial bias against it. Three Pines was a little to artsy for my tastes.

But it is also the heart of the crime, the victim being a woman with a number of mysteries that tend to centre on her art.

Louise Penny
Louise Penny

Given a chance by someone like me, Still Life becomes an absorbing mystery/crime novel with a particularly fascinating inspector (Gamache) tasked with solving the case.

(“He always felt a pang when looking at the hands of the newly dead, imagining all the objects and people those hands had held. The food, the faces, the doorknobs.” This reminds me of the odes of Neruda, a poet who found worlds in the most common of things.)

This is a whodunit of the old school variety placed in a contemporary Canadian setting and it works wonderfully.

In fact, I’ve already made a start on Penny’s subsequent Inspector Gamache books and look forward to reading them all.