(The Rabbit Hole is a podcast produced by the New York Times. Definitely worth a listen.)
So there’s this French guy, right. He has a university degree in Artificial Intelligence. He’s smart and he does well. He gets offered a job at a big well known tech firm in Silicon Valley. He’s proud as punch and he moves to the USA and is thrilled to get a role writing AI for their online video feed arm.
The brief? To encourage people to watch as much as possible. Harmless, right? Every business has a right to make money.
His work is going well. But he starts to wonder if it’s boring to watch one cat video and then just get fed cat video after cat video after cat video. Then the revolution happens in Cairo, Egypt. Our hero suddenly realizes that if he watches one video from the point of view of the rebels, he only gets fed videos from their perspective. But if he watches a video from the point of view of the cops, he only gets fed videos from the cops’ point of view. He realizes that, depending on where you start, you are going to get totally different stories.
He doesn’t want to be perceived as a grumpy dude. So instead of raising the matter as a complaint, he quietly begins working on solutions to this issue and submitting them to his boss. They never make it past prototype stage. He is told: the most important thing is to keep the viewers happy and keep them watching. He tries another solution and his boss suggest he just do his own work and stop going off script. After a break, he tries once more to find a solution which will be palatable to his superiors. He gets fired for poor performance (which he accepts as he was letting his assigned work slide).
I stopped watching Youtube. Not because I’m smart or because I knew about this but because Youtube is owned by Google and everything I watch on there gets spat back at me on my android mobile in the form of ads or suggested “news articles”. This irritates the hell out of me. But having learned more and more in the last couple of weeks about the algorithms behind social media, I am grateful to Google for annoying me so much.
This French guy had a conversation with a guy on a bus about a conspiracy theory saying that there was a plot to kill 2 billion people. While he could debunk each individual video the guy watched, he was unable to debunk the theory because the guy said “There are so many videos out there like this. It must be true.”
We are fed whatever we look for and then led on and on and on. What might be education turns into radicalization. I find it terrifying. And would I know if it was happening to me?
NB: This isn’t the main story in The Rabbit Hole but is an important supporting story.