August 24, 2020

The Nihilism Algorithm

The Nihilism Algorithm

WARNING: The narrator of this nearly-unhinged mess is a frivolous distortion of myself — I'm no Kaczynski. (This is partly just filler content to prove I have a pulse, since I haven't posted anything in over a year.)

The programmer's loathsome fate is not that they are forever condemned to the futility of squashing bugs that multiply with every stomp; it is the constant spam they receive from recruiters. My general policy is to completely and remorselessly ignore spam in all varieties and I take pride in that I haven't logged into my LinkedIn account since a time well beyond the reach of recollection, despite the email notifications LinkedIn deperately, to no avail, sends me. One such invite, with accompanying pseudo-cordiality necessarily baked into the template, was from a company that clearly had not done their research, as I have not been bashful in my expressions of opinion regarding the particular company in question, as demonstrable from this exemplary instance (from a press release a few years ago):

"With decentralized applications, you can have the utility of a Facebook, without the evility of a Facebook — that is, a company or a Zuckerberg."

(I really don't like the company that has vainly been attempting to 'recruit' me — 'recruit' is a word I'm glad is used, as it cannot escape the connotations of recruitment in the context of militaries or cults. To me, the instance with the company in question is worse than when Pearson tried to recruit me — and I had a legitmate grudge since their software routinely counted answers represented as fractions instead of imprecise decimals wrong when the desired format was unspecified.)

I doubt I would have even bothered to write this very post (pronouced 'essay') had it not been for the development that occurred despite my unacknowledging dismissal, which started (save for the conventional addressing not excerpted) as the following follow-up (itself a followup to a prior pathetic plea — also ignored — for a response):

"Thanks for your connection/response!"

I did not need to read any further; the rest of the message appeared to my periphery to be a description of the next steps in the process, but the message itself is predicated on something that is not the case. I did not 'connect' with the recruiter (in both the LinkedIn sense and — to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge — in the vulgar one), nor did I respond. Despite the instability of my personal memory (Memento is a film I find somewhat biographical), a response to a recruiter for this particular company was something that was completely incompatible with every fiber of my being — and if I somehow ever did, I'd expect to have written so on my wrist, though, not as an impression of Leonard Shelby, but as a failed impression of Seneca the Younger.

Either the recruiter had made a mistake and intended to send the message in response to another user, or, a kind of deception — which is what sealed this incident in recent memory — was being attempted.

"I'm not going to be had by some kind of Vassily Kuragin!" I thought to myself, relishing my own literay allusion and profound intellectual supremacy (this is a joke). I immediately knew by this perceived tactic that working for the company in question would eventually result in me finding myself in the midst of a snowy duel before I ever realized the superficiality of the initial enticement. (I had recently watched the Soviet production of War and Peace (and I highly recommend it!) that, much to my dismay, was available on HBO Max after I had scoured the internet-presence of the Russian company that did the restoration in order to find their unlisted YouTube uploads — which reinforced much of what I garnerd from my initial reading.)

The recent reminder of this encounter with a mistaken or (as I prefer to see it to support the narrative of this post) malicious recruiter reveals to me that I haven't quite enumerated the issue I take with companies such as the company in question. There are quite a few monolithic companies that all have the same odious feature in common with this particular company, but, in the midst of development of an articulation of a personal philosophy (that is very much under wraps as I research better the body of cognitive science that I feel must underpin it), I thought it a good exercise to articulate what exactly the overarching issue, as I see it, is.

Yet, before I am capable of articulating my disdain, I must wallow in it, catch my breath, and dive far into the deathly depths before I can hope to reach what lurks amongst the sediment. Hopefully, I will not drown.

Companies, such as the one in question, are duplicitous. While their public relations departments profess a kind of montmartarite — a crafted virtuous aspect — to their services, what underlies the virtual virtuosity is really a kind of ulterior motive: the ad-revenue business model.

Now, allow me to clarify that I take no inherent issue with companies that offer actual products and services and I can tolerate advertising when it's in the form of reasonable and responsible descriptions of what they offer. It is the ad-revenue model of social media platforms — modern-day medicine shows — that I find particularly distasteful.

The beating pulse of the heart at the problem can be sensed with the following stethoscope: Does the social media platform have your best interests in mind? With this question, we have found a pulse! "Bone cutter, please!" (invoking the prototypical Sprachspiel of Philosophical Investigations within the metaphor.).

Well, considering a general person's best interests are so varying person-to-person and cannot be abstracted into a singular platform, the answer, when proposed generally, cannot be 'Yes' and must — to somewhat erroneously employ the principle of bivalence — be a resounding 'No!' (Or, at any rate, I do not think a singular platform has my best interests in mind.)

So, then, what is the general function of one of these social media platforms? What are the interests of social media platforms? To rephrase, since I've already given what appears to be my grievance: What exactly is the problem I take with ad-revenue business models? To rephrase yet again (since the title may telegraph) — refer to the definition of 'algorithm,' then ask: What is the purpose that the algorithms of social media platgorms set out the achieve?

Outside of the public narratives they profess, they might give an answer that uses the term 'engagement' when dealing with the developers who maintain their platforms that did fall to the manipulations of their recruiters, but their purpose of 'engagement' is not to facilitate marriage or whatever manufactured meaning they ascribe to the word, but is, in actuality, to grab user attention in the slyest manner possible (to not be jarring and so-obviously intrusive) so that they can maximize the number of eyeballs and clicks on advertisements. So, really, what they call 'engagement' might better be called 'engorgement' with content consumption, so that more and more advertisements can be shown (along with other data-mining purposes, where user data — "Likes" and prior ads one has interacted with or even simply not scrolled immediately past — is either outright sold or used to sell specialized advertisement-space). There are hints of this motive of continually providing content one will respond to: they call the stream of 'new' or 'relevant' content your feed, which is close, but, more accurately, would more aptly be rendered in full as your feed trough.

It's not that profit-seeking is the core problem (I'm not demonizing capitalism); the core problem is the effect that the unconstrained, non-reflective pursuit of the ad-revenue model eventually produces. The core problem is not limited to 'social media'; it extends to the 'regular' media, too, (the "news") which fundamentally relies on the same ad-revenue models. The news media does this in a more polarizing manner than social media does, and often disingenuously distorts and sensationalizes narratives, which is plainly observable by contrasting the narratives purveyed one media company with another media company that caters to a base of differing ideological viewpoints. As an aside, media companies that purport themselves to be objective (a phenomenon largely unique to America) make a slanderous mockery of objectivity to those who actually practice it; if the media is as objective as it claims to be, then why is there the constant disputation on what should be basic matters of fact? Oh, right — they just want to obsequiously churn out content that caters to their readers, for purposes of ad-views and ad-clicks (and in some cases, selling the metadata it plunders from their readers to third parties).

The general public's revulsion of advertisements generally led to a large repulsion of the ad-revenue business model, which I suspect is as adequate an account of the rise of streaming platforms as any. Unfortunately, streaming platforms do oftentimes engage with a more-subtle form of advertising (advertising other content that is available on the platform — sometimes in the form of mandatory trailers and usually in the form of burgeoning banners built into the user interfaces (though, it might be more accurate to describe the interfaces as constructed around the banners)), but the purpose of this type of advertising is to "hook" customers on other offered programs so that the users will continue their $ub$cribtion$ to the platforms. Because of this, the same underlying issue I take with social media platforms and news media platforms is also present for streaming media platforms (which, I'm aware, is still something I haven't yet directly articulated — have patience, please).

Still on the subject of streaming platforms: The programs offered are more-or-less interchangable in terms of the business model the streaming platforms operate according to. With particular programs that make their appeals on any number of custom-tailored levels, the fungibility of content may not be immediately apparent to those encountering their seemingly unique features, but (with a fair and not-unhealthy dose of cynicism) allow for some contrived promotional examples that capture the real-world contexts that cross-promotions seek to ignore (NOTE: any resemblance to real programs — of which I really hope there isn't — is entirely coincidental; these are very easy to generate, took no thought, and anyone could continually generate pilots in this sort of manner to the point where one would inevitably be produced):

  • "Hey, you could be spending time with a dear loved one before they croak, but how about watching this reality show about shallow soccer moms that have undergone extensive plastic surgery? Don't take them at face value!"
  • "Hey, sure, you might be wanting to improve yourself via dedicated study of the mathematics underpinning the best-to-date understandings about the nature of reality, but watch this cartoon about a dog that likes to inhale narcotics! Spot puts the dime in doggie bag!"
  • "Hey, um, instead of mastering the violin, you should, uh, watch this documentary about umbrellas! You'll never believe how shady their past is!"

So, with the illustrations that telegraph my point sketched, here's this post's penultimate paragraph: The generalized description of the common algorithm employed by streaming, news, and social media platforms fundamentally does not presuppose any meaningful pursuits outside of consuming their cheap and meager content, since any reminder of something that would lead to their subscribers or readers/viewers or users off of the platform is against their ad-revenue interests. The goal is nonstop consumption of their offered content; they do not encourage meaningful pursuits (of which there are many) because such pursuits are against their own interests, so I think it is fair to condemn the common goal of the algorithm (which is unvaryingly continuous in implementation) for being, at its core, nihilistic.

To close, I should clarify that I'm not declaring that all entertainment is evil like I'm some kind of dogmatic puritan — some entertainment every once in a while makes a useful reprieve from the onslaught of horrors life can craftifly nearly murder one with, but the infinite scrolls, misleading headlines in ever-present columns always in view, non-stop suggestions, autoplaying of trailers without any means to disable them only functions to intentionally be as addictive as possible. My perspective is such that it's simply just the case that these platforms never afford one the opportunity — the necessary moments of uninterruption to be introspective — to take inventory of what actually matters personally and then to pursue what one finds. There are those that are being (and have been) raised by the nihilism algorithm, like pigs being fattened by the trough, who, because of the nonstop, systematic influx of foppish fodder, have been imbued with impetuosity and can rarely realize that the 'boredom' they desperately evade is a hallmark of a lack of aims or goals that is impossible and cannot arise within the context of meaningful pursuits; they only know to eat from troughs when they feel the hunger of meaning. If pigs are fattened as preparation for an upcoming slaughter that they are unaware of, what are the children of the nihilism algorithm fattening themselves for?