"Recommendation just for you" – the (algo)rhythm of the unconscious
It is one of those questions deeply anchored in the collective consciousness of humanity, a question of orientation, a quest; the answer determines salvation, well-being, sadness or laughter and especially the inclination of the domestic blessing. The question is: "What's on TV today?"
by Strigalt von Entf*
Despite the enormous scope and significance of this question, I must perhaps explain very briefly for the very young, sense-seeking readers: Yes, there was a time before this era when there was no richly supplied cornucopia of entertaining series and films of various streaming providers from which one could choose at any time according to one's whim. In these times, which may seem bleak from today's perspective, there was a fixed range of broadcasts that you could watch at a certain time. In the beginning, there were only two or three programmes, later a little more. You had to choose from this, or you simply let the television slumber in a well-deserved sleep mode.
I don't have to explain to you, dearest line devourers, why this is an apt metaphor for the development of humanity itself: our ancestors had to make do with the little that nature offered them. Over time, they increased the still limited supply until it overtook our needs by a long way, so that homo sapiens has now become primarily a homo dialektos - a constantly selecting one. Do I need the latest smartphone generation? Is my early autumn collection still en vogue, or do I urgently need to pick up the late autumn supersale? Will the Thermomix get along with the blender, the dough mixer and the universal chopper in the kitchen? And always the question: Which of these do I actually need?
The provider itself remedies the situation by unceremoniously suggesting to its loyal viewers from the extensive overall menu what probably suits them best. The honourable task of finding this out is taken on by an algorithm.
It would be nice, one would think, to have a helper at one's side to support one in word and deed in choosing what one really wants. This brings us back to the heritage of linear TV: the streaming services, the presentation of whose offering in a weekly TV guide would be as promising an undertaking as fighting windmills armed with a lance on an aging plough horse. The provider itself remedies the situation by unceremoniously suggesting to its loyal viewers from the extensive overall menu what probably suits them best. The honourable task of finding this out is taken on by an algorithm, which I can explain most simply as follows:
The brave hero arrives at his home port in Ithaca, battered by his everyday adventures. There he is looking for a diversion, but he doesn't know what kind of idleness would do him the most good, so he decides without further ado to turn to the Oracle of Delphi (in this example, we bridge the distance from Ithaca to Delphi with a zoom conference for the sake of narrative). The oracle of Delphi, surrounded by the scent of healing herbs, asks our intrepid recreationalist what he has done on such occasions in the past. After a short report, the clairvoyant mythical creature suggests activities that are very similar to those mentioned, but above all overlap with activities that are offered by the House of Delphi itself or are simply the current trend. To make her divination more credible, the oracle rolls a number that numerically expresses the fit of the suggested fripperies. Wonder, amazement, praised be God!
The streaming service pretends to know me, my deepest, inner feelings. But the friendship is flat, shallow, one-dimensional.
But wait: what a psychological sleight of hand! To simply suggest what it knows you like? "You had Pizza Quattro Stagioni yesterday – why don't you try Pizza Prosciutto?" How am I supposed to develop as a person if I'm offered nothing but pizza for the rest of my life? Especially since everything depends on this first decision. The first impression – difficult to correct in real life, impossible to ever change on Netflix. Once a French-Canadian action drama starring a transsexual martial arts world champion, always French-Canadian, or action, or drama, or transsexuality, or martial arts.
The streaming service pretends to know me, my deepest, inner feelings. But the friendship is flat, shallow, one-dimensional. It doesn't really know me at all, doesn't know about the diversity of my person, doesn't pay attention to my current emotional state. Yes, when was the last time Netflix asked me how I was doing before it "got down to business", before I was expected to press the right buttons to let the algorithm do everything to me in a physical binge marathon. And yet, wouldn't that be something: "How was your day? Oh, frustrating? Then how about something cheerful today ... You thought a lot about the world today? Here's a profound psychodrama based on Descartes' truth-sceptic epistemology."
The algorithm is just using me, looking for more self-affirmation in my selection behaviour.
No, the algorithm is not interested in my authentic inner life. It's just using me, looking for more self-affirmation in my selection behaviour: "Well, how was I, darling? You couldn't get enough of my series recommendations today".
Yes. Yes, it does something to us too. But we'll get to that – dear binge-readers of these modest lines – next time. Here, the next episode is not already waiting after a short, skippable intro. Here, as in former times, I say, "Tune in again in a week's time when it's Strigalt's Feuill-IT-ong!"
Until then, in adoration,
Strigalt von Entf
*Our "Feuill-IT-ong" format is created in collaboration with the two freelance writers Tobias Lauterbach und Daniel Al-Kabbani who occasionally contribute to the satire platform "Der Postillon". Under the pseudonym Strigalt von Entf, they report on current events from the world of technology – always with a wink! ;-)