we can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far

I can’t figure out why YouTube wants me to watch Carpool Karaoke and segments from the Ellen Show so badly. Most days, I watch two videos on YouTube: a yoga video from one of a few channels that I like, and one of two videos with a sequence of exercises for unlocking your lockjaw, both from a movie-handsome chiropractor who wears a wedding ring the size of a cuff scrounged from antiquity.

I know I should relax and learn to love the algorithm, but I don’t get it. I watched the Carpool Karaoke episode where they acted out “The Sound of Music” on the streets of L.A., and obviously I’ve watched every Taylor Swift interview Ellen has conducted, but beyond that, it’s all yoga and that chiropractor teaching me how to massage my suboccipitals, all the time.

(Pause to acknowledge how how precisely on-brand my YouTube tastes are. Second pause to glowingly recommend Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary, which you should absolutely catch before it wins Best Picture in a few hours.)

Current working conspiracy theories:

  1. Nobody binge-watches yoga classes or chiropractic instruction videos (though I did unearth what might be a subculture for watching videos of other people having chiropractic adjustments; just leaving that nugget there for you all to chew on so I don’t have to keep doing it alone) and the algorithm is trying to point me to videos that I’m likelier to binge-watch. Counterpoint: The algorithm isn’t pointing me to videos from Tony Awards performances from the ’70s and ’80s, so why is it even bothering?
  2. The chiropractor’s channel is several helpful videos on at-home exercises to alleviate various ailments, from TMJ syndrome (the technical term for “I can’t open my mouth because I grind my teeth so ferociously that I’ve nearly bitten through my night guard”) to tennis elbow, and… a video hawking the benefits of not vaccinating your children. The algorithm, which resents my affinity for woo-woo, is subtly trying to point me back toward science. If only the algorithm could see the look on my disgruntled face right now as I listen to a child cry in my vicinity.
  3. If you seek relief through stress through yoga and movie-handsome chiropractor videos, and also you’ve watched the original Broadway cast of Les Mis perform “One Day More” at the 1987 Tonys more than three times, your innate character is one that wants to watch Carpool Karaoke. Lie back and think of England (James Corden’s accent will help).
  • The problem with #3 is my niggling paranoia that one day the Internet is going to disappear and I won’t be able to do anything anymore. I usually think about this when I’m spinning around in a circle on the sidewalk trying to figure out where the blue dot is telling me to walk, but sometimes I wonder whether I could even choose my own reading material if left to my own devices (or, more precisely, without them).
  • Do I even know what I like anymore? (I guess I’ve been pondering this for a while.) I immediately forget most of what I read. I’d been blaming it on my attention span, but it occurred to me recently that maybe I just hate most of what I read. I slept terribly all last week because I started Tana French’s latest on Monday and I kept staying up long past my bedtime — reading, and then wondering if the shadows in my bedroom were intruders, and then wondering if the shadows in my bedroom were intruders, what seemingly insignificant incident from my childhood triggered their presence? Also, are all murder detectives shrewd and pithy calculators who can sniff out human weakness like the tasting notes in a fine wine, or just Irish ones? Also, how do you pronounce Gardai?
  • Anyway, it’s been nice to remember that books can be good. There are also only fifteen or so albums that have been released in the past decade that I actually want to listen to over and over again. (All of them are “1989.” Kidding! Maybe! See footnote [1].) I dutifully listen to my Spotify New Release Radar every Friday, but little speaks to me.
  • I guess the problem is that taste is eclectic. I was going to say that my taste is eclectic, but that seems unfair to everyone else who is more mercurial than predictable about what they like and don’t, which I assume is most people. How do you square that with predictive recommendation algorithms?
  • I read the first four Harry Potter books upwards of 40 times each as a child and then, while I waited for the next three, tried and discarded the canon of derivative books about boy wizards (sorry, Artemis Fowl), then gave up entirely on fantasy as a genre until I read The Night Circus, following which I wrote an honest-to-God fan letter to Erin Morgenstern. I love Tana French, yes, and I loved Gone Girl, but every subsequent entry into the unreliable-female-narrator genre is trash and I won’t be convinced otherwise. I am over misogyny as an artistic technique but I can’t stop reading Murakami, except 1Q84, which is a doorstop, not a novel, and I loved Super Sad True Love Story, though I hated Lake Success. I hit peak dystopia after the first Hunger Games and slogged through not only the rest of the trilogy but also the abominable Divergent series, which offended me so badly I swore off anything set in a future; but then the genre went highbrow, and I rolled my eyes but can’t say I wasn’t unmoored by Station Eleven (a book nobody should read until all cruise ships have been released from their coronavirus quarantines. Trust me) and Severance. I’ve already forgotten every novel I read in 2019 except Trust Exercise, even the ones that are also about bad people in positions of power, with and without clever plot devices. I’m a little devastated to admit that I think I’ve outgrown YA, though excited to eventually be ready to read Mrs. Dalloway.
  • TL;DR: My tastes are mercurial. I like books that speak to me. If I were to draw a thread between my favorite books, it’s protagonists that exist at a slight but impassable remove from reality: friendless boy wizards who make friends only to discover that friendlessness hardens into a character quality (cf. Harry Potter but also The Magicians), educated twentysomethings ashamed of their lack of ambition (Sweetbitter), educated twentysomethings ashamed of their lack of ambition even as they flee a global pandemic (Severance). I like books where the slight but impassable remove from reality is incidental, not the plot itself (ergo my dislike of Divergent, although I also prefer my books to read like they were edited at some point).
  • I’m not sure that’s a quality you can write into an algorithm. I like what I like.
  • So — where was I? YouTube’s seemingly baseless recommendations. I completely lost the plot there, didn’t I? How do I sew this back up into something? Conclusion: Art doesn’t need to be a buy-one-get-one situation; anomalies are precious. Half the reason I liked the Carpool Karaoke “Sound of Music” video was its sheer weirdness. No book that sets out trying to be Gone Girl can be as audacious. Dystopias were over before we entered into one. I’ve even developed an affinity for my anti-vax chiropractor and how he stares into my soul while he teaches me how to massage my masseter muscles. I don’t want YouTube to find me another chiropractor; I want YouTube to find me something radical that I can’t unsee. Is there a setting for that?
  • [1] 1989, yes, but also Badlands, 1000 Forms of Fear, Strange Desire, By The Way I Forgive You, Queen of the Clouds, 3 Rounds and a Sound, The Fool, Blue Neighbourhood… I’m sure there are a few more, but I can’t think of them now.

cybernetics for kinesthetics

This is part 4 of an ongoing series about technology. Previously, I justified my love of Instagram, felt nauseous about search engine optimization, and felt violated by targeted ads. You can stay tuned to this blog for more, or wait a few years for my Silicon Valley tell-all, All My Least Favorite People Went to Stanford.

I was troubled immeasurably by John Seabrook’s article about AI that writes

When I think about unpacking writing to its constituent biological processes, or to the rules of grammar and tone that comprise it, I feel nauseous like I do when I think about what’s outside of the universe, or God, or my most profoundly embarrassing moments. 

At best, my writing is Martha Graham’s quickening translated through me into action. Writing, when I do it well, isn’t something I think about; it’s something that I do with my body, as I did in my past life as a dancer. That writing might be something other than an incalculable force is anathema to the confidence that I’ve developed over the past several years since I first came to realize that there was, in fact, a thing that I was good at. 

Writing this essay was an out-of-body experience. I was 25 and absolutely wretched with despair. I was crawling with feelings and memories. I didn’t know where to put my rage and shame, nor did I know how to ask the world to pity me, and then finally I began to feel something bubbling up at the base of my skull, and I put my hands to the keyboard and then there was my heart, articulated. It was the first time I had felt powerful in months. It was the most powerful that I had felt. It was no biological process or series of instructions that a computer could execute; it was unfathomable. It was transcendent. 

In truth, I know that I, a writer, am a machine. I consume the New York Times Morning Briefing and Reddit threads about the misery of the Tube and I listen to my colleagues tell me all the ways in which they would do my job if they were me and I catch sight of a long-gone lover rock-climbing with his new girlfriend on Instagram and I scroll through movie reviews and restaurant reviews and gadget reviews email after email after email after email. What comes out the other end is one sheet from the multiverse, a dispatch from the version of me who crammed onto this morning’s Central Line to White City underneath the armpit of a man listening to a song that I haven’t heard since the long-gone lover played it for me in, for reasons that escape me, a parking lot. 

In the same way that baking is chemistry, and you can’t eyeball the baking powder, so is artistic expression. What I put on paper is the product of the precise number of hours I spent in the thrall of my A.P. English teacher in 2006 and the precise number of times that I’ve reread the first love letter I received as a semi-grown woman and the precise feeling I get when I forget that I’m brushing up against a stranger’s sweat, jostling for a grip as the train rattles from St Pauls to Bank, and remember instead that I live five thousand miles from where I was born. Had Mrs. Hampton retired five years earlier, I could be writing investigative journalism, not prose poems about the normal things I hate

What I create bears the mark of what I’ve consumed. And does that make me any different from a bot recapping the high school baseball season or a Russian troll farm regurgitating Stormfront in a Facebook ad? 

I like to think of myself as exalted. I’m an artist. You can’t teach an algorithm to feel where the commas go in its bones. I’ve never felt that my talent is explicable or that job, to speak bluntly, is at risk of being automated away. I don’t know where to put commas because I memorized Chicago; I know where to put commas because I feel it in my bones. I’ve made a career of putting commas in such a way that the person on the other end can’t help but feel what I’m feeling or buy what I’m selling. It’s a function of my being one with the commas. It’s innate.

But, then, how did I learn to drive? How did I learn to scale the shelves in the stockroom at the store where I worked in high school to restock a cartonful of shoes in the twenty minutes I had left before they stopped paying me whether or not I was done? Speeding down I-15 outside of Las Vegas, through the alien desert with mountains looming high above, is a task that a robot can do, but a joy that only a human can feel. Once, at the store, I fit a woman with half a foot missing for a pair of shoes; I held her damaged foot in my hand and we looked one another in the eye while she told me what she needed to be comfortable. 

It’s precious of me to imagine that being good at something that’s hard to teach makes me immune to the force of technology. I don’t get paid — yet — for the kind of writing that makes me really tick. And the writing I do get paid for can be such a slog that I might envy the robot that could dispassionately listen to the engineer line-editing my copy on the basis of his having once written for his college paper. (Perhaps we could train the robot to also dispassionately flag every time the engineer suggests language that is a little phallic for a technology marketing document. It, being neither a woman nor sentient, might get better results than I.) 

And yet. I write because I think it’s the best thing I have to offer the world, but I also write because it’s the best thing the world has to offer me. I can live with the idea that I might never drive a car again. I can’t live with the idea that one day holding a pen and scratching it on paper or letting my fingers fly along the keyboard might be quaint, that my naked human prose might not pass muster next to the output of a machine that has read more of Proust than I have. (Which is none, as long as I’m offering up naked human prose.) 

I want desperately to make a career of letting people see themselves in what I write and I’m scared to think that I might be up against not just the army of Buzzfeed listicle writers who have bafflingly landed book deals and an industry that only buys knockoffs of Gone Girl, but… robots. Or, more specifically, the decay of attention devoted to good writing. Machines can get the job of imparting information done. You can call it utilitarian, but what’s to say that writing — mine, or anyone’s — is more than that? 

It’s rich to claim that what I exude when I’m feeling productive is unique or valuable. You could, as Seabrook finds, mix up the same ingredients in another pot, and the consumer might be one the wiser. So who am I to imagine or even wish for a stop to the technology that so inexorably marches over what others hold as dear as I do writing?