The One You Feed

On Self-Discovery and the Threat of Algorithms

The One You Feed
Ⓒ Fanny Vassilatos

Like most of us, I really enjoy discovering things on the Internet. It helps me hone in on what I love and what I value. I believe digital environments can profoundly help us define ourselves, but tech companies and their almighty algorithms have a different agenda.

Ever since I've had access to a computer, I've been gathering bits and pieces of information that I resonate with. Not always with a specific goal or project in mind, just things that catch my eye, that make me think or that I want to remember. I can recall many late evenings of scrolling through Tumblr in my teens, discovering new fashion styles, literary quotes or learning about improbable topics with Wikipedia. To keep a trace of what I was gleaning, I created tidy folders where I would save images to my computer, screenshot quotes, bookmark new blogs or websites I wanted to come back to. I was young, discovering parts of the world, learning about different industries, experiencing video and visual art —yes, through a screen, but I consider it almost as valuable as their real-life equivalents— and slowly, I was defining myself.

The more I browsed, the more I discovered and I felt a legitimate thrill even if these were digital pieces of information. It sparked my imagination. I would enjoy envisioning many different futures for myself. If I was going down a rabbit hole in the literary and editorial scene, I would picture myself in the future as a freelance translator, working with notorious publishing houses in New York City. If I was more in a trendy vibe, I would explore fashion blogs and read interviews with bloggers and designers and would imagine myself traveling to fashion weeks all over the world wearing stilettos every day. With time, I grew out of love with some areas while others caught on to the point where I basically kickstarted my career in tech with online courses.

The Internet is such a promising tool when we're being active and not passive. Of course, it can be a source of procrastination or distraction from real life if we let it take control. But it can also be a powerful engine that allows us to learn more about something before committing to it in real life. I honestly doubt that I would have been so sure about (or even aware of) design as a choice of study without all that online surfing.

If you're not exposed to a lot of things, your thinking will stay limited to what your family or community usually does. You can't know what's out there without going to look for it. You have to set yourself up to find what you love. As the saying goes, luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. The Internet is the cheapest way to discover the world and to give yourself a chance to find new things. You don't need to travel around the globe to learn more about yourself —but if you can afford it, definitely do that. What I mean is that all you need is a little curiosity and a wifi connection.

The concept the World Wide Web was originally based on, hypertext, has this way of letting you roam around an arborescence of connected links, eventually leading to the discovery of things you didn't even know existed, but that are semantically tied together. When that process is guided by your personality, interests and gut feeling, it develops exponentially more specific and unique to your taste. But this very experience is at stake.

Of course, today, one could argue that the times of a neutral and purely semantic Web are gone, and that ad-based search engines and click-thirsty algorithms are paving our way across the Internet. And that's not completely false. In most of our online endeavours, algorithms have the distinct role of making browsing feel frictionless. Without even realizing it, one link leads to another and we magically find the exact item we've been raving about all week, and chances are that it's on sale for 24 hours. However, what's concerning about the control that algorithms have over our usage of the Internet is an increasing homogeneity of thought. At times, it feels like the spectrum of what's potentially being shown to us is drastically reduced. More and more, big players are eating up the small ones and their powerful algorithms end up racing us all back to the same outlets to read the news, the same online stores to shop or the same social networks to connect. One really needs to be aware of the current centralization paradigm not to get sucked in these biased paths.

What's most worrying about this Filter Bubble [1] phenomenon is that tech giants are getting to know us better than we know ourselves. With the inconceivable amount of data these companies have access to, they are able to categorize us in highly detailed consumer profiles. And this is what guides our supposedly personalized algorithms. They’re essentially influencing core aspects of our self-actualization by predetermining what we "happen" to come across, all the while making it feel serendipitous. It is more important than ever to be intentional with what we choose to do on the Web, because algorithms are constantly steering our online activity in the direction that benefits companies' private interests.

In today's online environments, we really need to be careful what we click on. It's way easier for an algorithm to learn than unlearn. It usually doesn't come with a reset button. An algorithm can only work with the information you feed it.

This resonates with the Two Wolves Cherokee legend [2] that goes as follows:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life.
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued,
“The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather,
“Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied,
“The one you feed.”

Applied to the current Internet landscape, the evil wolf of this metaphor represents nasty algorithms. Their goal is to suck you in and keep you engaged; addicted, even. They promote instant gratification, polarization of opinions, sameness of thinking, centralization of sources and they stubbornly reinforce your existing beliefs.
On the other hand, the good wolf represents self-initiated Web-surfing. A much more intentional and educational activity driven by authentic curiosity that reflects your values, targets meaningful goals you might have for ongoing projects or topics you're learning about, and offers opportunity for critical thinking.

In the language of tech, we can compare this to, for example, Youtube's suggestion algorithm. It is incredibly easy to fall in the trap of clickbait-y titles, cheap social experiments and dramatic conspiracy theories [3] . Humans are curious creatures and the content is always conveniently just one click away. Tech companies know that and are taking advantage of it. However, if you intentionally search for, subscribe to, and engage with quality content that actually teaches you something valuable, you'll gradually see less of those eye-catching thumbnails and might actually come out of a Youtube session with new information in your head as opposed to the dreadful remorse of having wasted two hours of your life.

I wonder where I would've ended up if algorithms were as powerful back when I was first discovering the Web. To make sure you don't get nudged off-track, next time you're drilling down an Internet rabbit hole, please turn off Autoplay and ask yourself; which wolf are you feeding?

[1] Eli Pariser on the Filter Bubble
[2] Two Wolves legend
[3] Also known as the YouTube Wormhole