Stale

When I was a kid, the internet came in 26 volumes. It was called the World Book Encyclopaedia or The Encyclopaedia Britannica, depending on which version you bought.

My dad, futurologist that he was, was sceptical about the value of ownership because of the rate at which knowledge was updated, but nonetheless he acquiesced and bought us the World Book.

Back then, quaintly, encyclopaedias were sold door-to-door. The salesman in our neighbourhood was one William J Deards, my sixth grade teacher.

Mr Deards was 64 years old, due for retirement the following year – or not due, as he’d claim, by dint of the fact that his birthday was February 29th, meaning that he had a birthday every four years and therefore was only 16 rather than 64. Gags like this from Mr Deards would get a polite reaction in class the first time round, but always fell a bit flat the fourth time round. But he was a great teacher, and a retold story is a variation on rote learning. Right? Right. 

Anyway, with an eye on retirement income, in addition to his pension, Mr Deards would bring the papier mache internet into as many homes as he could locally. Mr Deards was the Virgin Media of his day.

 

A year or so later, the World Book and Encyclopaedia Britannica faced a bit of competition with the arrival of a lower-cost option called Funk and Wagnalls.

The company behind Funk and Wagnalls threw a fortune behind TV advertising and some genius there came up with the strap line ‘Look it up in your Funk and Wagnalls’. This, consequently and not surprisingly, became the loudly-proclaimed question of choice in classrooms all over Australia. If a kid answered a question from the teacher correctly in class, a chorus would erupt from the back of the class: “Did you look it up in your Funk and Wagnalls?” Try it out. You’ll get a sense of why it went viral.

I loved the World Book. Growing up at the edge of the Australian bush made the books into life rafts. I’d stand in front of them, pick a volume at random with my eyes closed, sit down, break open the gold-edged pages, and look through it. Not sequentially, randomly. Grabbing volume F might give me flight, France, flowers, fashion and futurism.

It was an antidote to what I perceived to be the staleness of the world immediately around me. It was also a different way of looking at the world. It’s hard not to find connections between things – and finding connections between things that are only together because they start with the same letter was surprisingly useful. Random associations are an incredibly valuable aid to thinking.

The World Wide Web was just like that, before it was indexed and algorithemed to oblivion. It was the World Wild West, a bucket full of the most bizarre combination of things colliding with each other.

My worry about the inexorable rise of the algorithms is that they increasingly give us subtly different versions of what we already know or have experienced.

Back in the earlier days of the web, I’d wander accidentally to sites that specialised in sending toast by post or sites that aggregated links to stories or flights of fancy that were genuinely imaginative and varied. Less so now. Everything seems have been narrowed to my perceived ambit. The algorithm has control.

On Netflix, for instance, I am served particular flavours of distopian sci-fi, usually involving people travelling silently to avoid detecting by the aliens. Or crime movies set in post-industrial locations – all rust and the fake vintage signs. Google, helpfully, reinforces my narrowness in its recommendations in my app. I get better at knowing what I already know.

This baked-in consistency creates a framework for habits to grow and tighten their grip. It might be partly why all online debate seems to be binary, with no give and take. Our communities are reinforcing bibiographies of what we already firmly believe. They become fractals, starting large and gradually fractioning thoughts and actions to oblivion – or at least invisibility.

Attempts to reengineer spontaneity into the Web have not been altogether successful. Google’s homepage includes a button labeled “I’m Feeling Lucky”. This feature originally enabled users to type in their search query, click the button and be taken directly to the first result, thereby bypassing the search results page. Subsequently it was changed to serve as an advertisement for Google services. One estimate was that Google lost $110 million in revenue per year due to use of the button, which bypassed advertisements.

My go-to places on the Web include Arts and Letters Daily, a site devoted to a set of links to stories, articles and ephemera recommended by academics. Another is McSweeney’s, a showcase for lots of interesting creative writing, including a whole series of imaginative lists. [My all-time favourite is the list of ‘my status updates now that my mother became my Facebook friend’. They include ‘Scott is making good, well-informed decisions.’] I also like Brownielocks, which is a lovingly collected compendium of commemorative days, weeks and months. I write this on World Sauntering Day at the tail end of Duct Tape Days in the middle of Turkey Lovers’ Month. Halcyon Days. I realise I am weakening my own hypothesis that the Web is narrowing, but maybe I’m not. I have found some geographies that I’m comfortable with and don’t know how to go further. There are other sites, of course, that I go to routinely: the New Yorker, Washington Post, The Times, The Guardian and the BBC website. All are expanding and narrowing in equal measure. I guess it’s about boundaries and borders, about questions and answers, certainties and uncertainties.

The digital world is coded on structure and discipline. 

We can drape our inconsistencies and curious interests on it, but it always seeks to structure them in rigid and coherent ways that has an underpinning purpose, even when we crave some incoherence and chaos. Purposelessness is a human need. It’s the compost that creates imaginative leaps. We might occasionally call it procrastination, but that’s unnecessarily pejorative. The trouble with WWW is that it’s so pervasively and inescapably there, wherever we are. Mobility and ubiquity. 

Off grid is what we need from time to time, or an algorithm that is able to capaciously and truly encompass all that we might be interested in. It’s coming – and quickly. But it needs to be done well. Artificial intelligence, in the wrong hands, is anything but. At a DPLpanel session a few weeks ago, the core conclusion was that AI and algorithms can and will be transformative. 

But as panelist Dr Dimitris Vlitas (Toronto University visiting professor and advisor to DPL) pointed out, it’s all about forensic care in avoiding assumptions and prejudices, but also about allowing for unknown unknowns. Baking in bad habits is artificial mediocrity. At best, it will be about tracing a line with no evident guiding symmetry. Otherwise, our regulated worlds can become as stale and predictable as toast by post.