Neighborhoods, the Anti-Algorithm

Picture me snowed in. Eight inches of it is enough to shut things down for a day in these parts. But, hey, it sure is pretty. So, look, bear with me on this one. It’s long, and yeah, I know that some of you will tl;dr it and two of you will unsubscribe (every time), but some of you will be on the wavelength. So let’s mindmeld. Oh, and if you just want to skip on down to read me rag on Microsoft in 150 words, I’ll understand.

CB, February 27, 2015

Within just a few hundred feet of me are 40 very different people. Nearest is a woman in her eighties. She never married and has lived in the same home for over seventy years. Just as close is a family of three. Dad is a German immigrant and does material science research at a university in town. Mom is an artist and musician. She keeps a very active kiln on her porch and plays many instruments. Their son goes to school and likes to kick his soccer ball in the yard. Just a bit farther off is a family of four. Dad is a doctor, Mom stays home, and their two little boys are just getting started exploring the world. There are many other interesting people. A handyman, a widowed and retired medical administrator, a contractor, a public health analyst, a project manager, a mechanical engineer, a landscape architect, a librarian. These forty people are truly different people; different in all the ways that one could be different. Different ages, different genders, different nationalities, different ethnicities, different races, different sexual orientations, different religions, different occupations, different politics, different interests. The one thing they all have in common is that they live on the same street. These forty people are my neighbors.

These facts I’ve rattled off, they show that I know a little something about the people around me. And as far as facts go, I know many more than these. In the relatively short time I’ve lived here, I’ve gathered quite a lot of information about my neighbors — where they come from, how they met, what they like to do with their time, what they like to eat for dinner or watch on TV, that sort of thing — but none of that means that I really know them. That, of course, is a work in progress. The emphasis there, of course, is on the work. It takes work and time to develop community. See, I’ve only lived on this street for about a year and a half. Just the blink of an eye. I’ve lived other places for much longer, where I never got to know my neighbors nearly as well as I already have here. So how did this happen? Was it technology? Was it magic?

As far as technology is concerned, we do have an email listserve that serves the greater “Old North Durham” neighborhood, of which my street is a small part. But it has something on the order of 1,500 members and what I’ve really learned from being one of them is who likes to walk their dog off-leash and who thinks that is e v i l, or who likes to give away expired medication and who thinks that is e v i l, or…well, you get the idea. I think of it as our neighborhood Gawker, only without the articles, just the comments.

Our street also has a Facebook group. And that is much more useful. A few weeks ago, I got a buzz in my pocket because someone two doors down needed a cardboard box of at least certain dimensions and I just happened to have such a box, so I picked it up, walked a few steps, rang a doorbell, and handed it over. A simple good deed in two minutes. Last week — when it was colder here than it was in Alaska — several neighbors had burst pipes fiascos and when one family posted this news to the group, two other neighbors sprang into action and had things fixed and cleaned up in less than an hour. Not much longer ago, while driving home from work, my mother called to tell me that her father had died. Then, I called a few other relatives to let them know. By the time I pulled up to my house, I’d been on the phone the entire time and not had a moment to process what just happened. I turned the car off and, as I gathered my things to get up and go inside, my phone buzzed again. This time, it was a message from a neighbor to our Facebook group. She and her husband had been moving some furniture downstairs and got it stuck in their stairwell. They needed help getting it out because as long as it was stuck there, he was stuck upstairs. So, I went straight over. On instinct. I wanted to help — I really did — but just as the front door opened, I regretted it. Something about the way the old door creaked as it opened — and maybe the smell from inside — reminded me of my Grandfather’s house, and then I thought, he just died — just minutes ago — my Grandfather is dead! What am I doing here? But there I was, and so I helped. And you know what? The twenty minutes of heave-ho-ing and mental physics problem solving and laughing with my neighbors was about the best grief counseling I could have in that moment. Because there was what mattered, playing out before me: a family, living, loving each other, making memories, creating the stuff of which life — and grief — is truly made. And then I thought that my Grandfather would probably like it, were he to ask, “What did you do when you heard that I died?” and I replied, “Oh, I went next door and helped my neighbors move a wardrobe.” That bit of healing, thanks — in part — to a bit of technology.

Wasn’t it?

Here’s why that question is so fascinating to me. We call Facebook a “social network.” We say it was designed to connect — to bring people together. That’s the story, anyway. But then, when you actually listen to people talk about Facebook, you hear other stories. Contrary stories. Stories of alienation. Of bullying. Of groups and sub-groups and sub-groups of the sub-groups. Of following and unfollowing and muting and blocking. Of “filter bubbles.” And of those bubbles, the important question of how they came about. Did they pop into existence “naturally” — by way of the interests, preference, and engagement of you and me — or were engineered, a product of intentional Truman Show-ing?

My so-called “filter bubble” has always puzzled me. I’ve never been able to figure out what logic drives the contents of my news feed. The most frequent faces are, oddly, the weakest ties. Rarely do I catch an update from colleagues — the people I see and talk to every single day — or even a family member. Instead, Facebook seems to think that what a guy I went to high school with for two years in the 90s has to say is more relevant to me than my sister. Despite the fact that I haven’t spoken to that guy in many years and I never comment or “like” his posts. Not that I have anything against them, of course. But come on. This is strange. I have friends whom I have specifically told Facebook are Close Friends, but where are they? As for my neighbors, I see their posts to our shared neighborhood group page, but again, I rarely see them in my news feed. And look, I get how to use this thing. And I get that I’m probably not helping things by how I use it (which is, honestly, not much). This is not a plea for tech support. This is me saying that this “social network” is obviously more of a social “study.” And on that point, I can absolutely say that I understand the antipathy that so many people suddenly have for this thing that they thought was life, but turned out to be a laboratory.

We all understand the invisible economics of the web now — that, if it’s free then you are the product, that it’s an economy of attention, blah blah blah — but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. And, really, that ads all the way down is the status quo is just as much of a problem for the people buying and selling you and me as it is for you and me. You see, Facebook says to their real customers, “Here are billions of people. We’ve gathered them all up for you. We know everything about them. If you want your ad to be seen by thirty-four year-old, white, American men named Chris who kind of don’t like Facebook, we can do that. You say the word and they’ll be seeing your kale co-op everywhere.” And their customers are like, “No way! Take our money.” And Facebook does. They take it. But it’s not enough. Because Facebook will burn through that money in a second. So, they use that sale to convince other investors how good this ad game is — how they should give Facebook more money so that they can squeeze even more information out of their users and use it to sell even more ads — and so on and so forth until, “We’ll all be rich!” But there’s risk. In any business model, there’s risk. The risk here isn’t that advertisers will stop calling. No, as long as we’re there, they’ll call. The risk is that we’ll go away. To mitigate that risk, Facebook can do two things, both of which they do a lot. Thing #1: buy more of us. That’s why they buy other companies that make apps that have lots of users. When you sell attention, you have to buy attention. But Thing #2 is worse. Thing #2 is when they mess with our reality. Once exposed, they said, “Don’t worry, this is OK. We’re working with social scientists. We’re partnering with universities and experts in sociology and psychology to open things up and share what we know with them so that, together, we can learn something about humanity. We mean no harm!” Boy does that sound nice. It’s lovely PR. Of course, what if it does harm someone? Plenty are asking this question. And even if it doesn’t, we can all safely call B.S. on the spin. This is not about learning or the common good. This is about control. If Facebook can control what you experience, then they can control you emotionally. If they can control you emotionally, then they can keep you. If they can keep you, then they can keep selling you.

So what does this have to do with my neighborhood?

G.K. Chesterton, in a collection of essays titled Heretics, wrote:

“The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce variety and uncompromising divergences of men…In a large community, we can choose our companions. In a small community, our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized society groups come into existence founded upon sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery.”

That was 1905. Long before the internet would give us the largest community of all. Yet, the oft-cited “filter bubble” of the internet is Chesterton’s community of choice. The easy community. The one that just happens because we want what we want. And in a less troubled world, that wouldn’t be much to fuss about. But in our world, the “filter bubble” is dangerous. It makes fear, hatred, and oppression all the more abundant, both online and off. Before the internet, we called “filter bubbles” segregation. We call them “filter bubbles” now because its easier to see them as a manifestation of technology than the effect of our choices. Because if we saw them for what they truly are, we’d have to call them segregation again. We thought we left that behind. But, no, we haven’t. Segregation, of every kind, is the entropy against which we all struggle, the product of bodies living in time, wired down to our cells to survive at all costs, responding to their loudest signal, fear. Chesterton understood that the principal challenge we humans are given to work out in this life is each other, and that nowhere better than next door is that challenge met.

But in Facebook’s world, next-door has no greater offer of intimacy than across town, or state, or country. In the large community, as Chesterton said, we can choose our companions. That’s the appeal of the network. Community on my terms. Forget that we know it’s not good for us. Or that it’s dangerous. Forget that it’s a shinier, faster form of segregation. Forget that it’s invisible and layered, making it easier to explain away. None of this is Facebook’s fault. If it wasn’t them, then it would be AOL, or Friendster, or MySpace, or any of the many networks that came before it. We can’t blame them — any of them — for segregation, however technological its 21st century incarnation may be. But we can blame them for selling it. The economic benefit of segregation is nothing new; it makes selling things easier. But segregation is Facebook’s secret sauce. It’s an economic imperative. Like just about every “platform” of the internet today, it is ruthlessly driven to box each one of us in. To confine us to an echo-chamber. Not for our own benefit, but for theirs. Because it makes it easier for them to control us. And no, not to usher in some dramatic, Illuminati-style new world order. It’s hardly that interesting! It’s to sell tiny display ads and make heaps of money. That’s it. Controlling us is simply an act of inventory management.

Of course, it’s easy to look past all of this. To point at the good that thrives on the network — and of that, there is plenty. The lonely who are no longer lonely because of it. The oppressed who grow more powerful when bound together. But to celebrate the network’s role in that only heightens my awareness that it is something we could have — should have — without it. It’s too easy, also, to celebrate the engines of our ingenuity. See this? Look what we have made! But that we are as enamored with the algorithm as we so clearly are is an indicator that our hearts are way out of sync with our minds. We have engineered such sophisticated tools for connecting, ordering, and studying ourselves; it’s an astounding achievement. It’s one we might even celebrate if it were truly an open project for the common good. But it isn’t. Not even close. So why do we pretend that it is? The network is not ours. It’s the other way around. We are the network’s. To sell. That is, unless we get off the network. Or at least spend a whole lot less time there.

My neighbors have convinced me that community is not only of the network. Saying such a thing sounds trite. But it’s another thing entirely to live it. Here’s an example: Last year, the doctor and his wife down the street decided to organize weekly neighborhood dinners. Each Sunday evening, someone hosts dinner for the neighborhood. When I first heard the idea, I was aghast. Weekly! As in, every week? No, I thought, monthly, maybe. But we went to a few, then we hosted one of our own — which wasn’t nearly as much work as we thought it would be — and we’ve regularly gone to most of the others since. It’s not obligatory. It’s not like if you go to one, you must go to them all. Or even that if you go to one, you must host one. Few people have gone to every dinner, but many of us have gone to most of them. And many of us have hosted one. Spending this time together — committing to it — is how the work gets done, not the Facebook group. It’s through being together, in each other’s homes, in real life. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no utopia. People get on each other’s nerves. Not everyone will become best friends. We’re talking about people here. But that’s the point. The network can’t sell that. It can sell our attention, but the less of our lives we live on the network, the less our attention feels like us. That’s the control we still have. Eventually, hopefully, leveraging that control could change the economics of the network. Consider the neighborhood the anti-algorithm.

In other news, Microsoft’s latest “productivity future” is yet another study in tone-deaf American elitism. Ultimately, what does better technology yield? Constant output from workers, greater leisure for the bosses. It underscores one of the bigger problems I have with the direction “technology” seems to “want” to take — or, that we seem complacent to let it go — which, first, is an almost complete focus on communications and visualization, and second, an unbridled access to our time and attention such that there can no longer be any meaningful distinction between working and not-working. So, with that said, here’s my to-the-point summary of this latest piece of propaganda: “Asian woman drops everything to work all night on white lady’s project. White lady chills on her porch.” Oh, and there’s some nice new bendy screens and a school of autonomous ocean probes. Thank god.

Heavy Rotation: While I was writing this, my brother texted me to recommend The Race for Space, by Public Service Broadcasting. He wrote, “Just came out with a new album called the Race for Space. It’s dope. You should check it out.” I was like, “Oh yeah, I think I saw something about that on NPR?” And he was all, “Yea probably. Couple of nerds who take old radio stuff and put beats to it.” So, I put it on, duh. Listened to it twice in a row. It’s good.

Recent Tabs: These illustrations from the 1962 Swedish edition of The Hobbit are wonderful. This lawyer and typographer doesn’t like Medium, either. If you truly believe that you’re not human, people on the Internet will probably be the first to know. What are your favourite sci-fi books? “You should wear headphones for this. It’s gonna be pretty cool. I mean, it’ll be cool without them. But, trust me, it’ll be a lot more cool if you put on headphones.” One Magic Leap for mankind. What our space probes are up to. With no shortage of real problems to solve, the state goes after Little Free Libraries. Take a deep breath, because this is terrifying. In the 2000s, there will be only answers.

Written by Christopher Butler on February 27, 2015,   In Essays

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