Sunday, July 11, 2010


The 57 variables that Google uses to construct the algorithm that determines what listings in what order you receive when you call up something (you won’t get the same list as your friend, you won’t get the same list over time, you won’t get the same list if you move across town -- this is not like a book!) are evidently mostly market-based. Aside from the fact that the first half-dozen are probably paying to be there, Eli Pariser of has been explaining how this works. He calls it the "filter bubble." No doubt they include age, gender, education, preferred movies & books & TV shows, buying preferences (I wonder what they make of all the cat food? Pet preference.), location (Think they have a category for rural villages in Montana? Probably.), religion, marital status, desire modality (Like that? I just made it up.), friendship networks, subscriptions, clothes style, and all that. Maybe most of this stuff is as benign as knowing your ice cream preference. (Haagen-Daas coffee, but I can’t have it anymore. Put Diabetes II on that list. Do these variables interact enough to pick that up?)

There are two important factors that are probably not directly market-based, but indirectly very powerful. One is “what are you afraid of?” (the base issue of much marketing is fear and I don’t just mean insurance) and the other is one’s relationship to government. (Politics, financial dependence -- Medicare, SS, etc.-- and voting.) These two are closely interwoven. One of the main ways they are connected is through health care: paying for it, educating about it, subsidizing research, and now more than ever managing the consequences of war.

This stuff is all very hard to think about. Clay Shirky tells us that we have more discretionary time than we know what to do with, so we sink it into sit coms. There’s truth to that, but it’s also a clue that he’s male. Even living all alone and having low standards, I still eventually have to wash things and schlepp groceries and work on the yard. Of course, NONE of my discretionary time goes into television because I’m not hooked up to a feed. I do put hours a day into Netflix, but I’m not watching sit coms. (Last night it was Sally Potter’s “Rage” which is a bit of a comment on sit coms. I thought it was brilliant and biting social commentary. The sitcom-ers just couldn’t get it.)

Pro-active videos. The kind you have to look for on YouTube -- I’m really getting into it. I hope I’m wrecking my 57 element algorithm, though I think my Netflix rentals help to screw it up as well. I don’t do the 5-star rating bit. I don’t do that on Amazon either. Anyway, since I buy mostly used or remaindered books no longer in print, I’m of little use to them. I don’t do iTunes.

I watch blogs, people like Adam Curtis in England who has been going against the tide for decades and documenting it all with video. Clay Shirkey, Eli Pariser, Stephen Pressfield, Trevor Herriott, Robert Eoin Nash, Robert Saponsky, and Nassim Taleb -- make something of THAT list! (I’d start with why there are no women.) But the biggest variable under the least control by some predatory entity is simply my own blog, prairiemary. (I have others but I’m using them for other things -- great place to park information, like chapters of a book. Gets them off my hard drive.) I don’t use the mouse so much as I use my head. Someone finds it by accident or recommendation, they make contact and voila. I still hate the social networking sites. I think a lot of people think they are gaming the sites when maybe they aren’t.

There’s a story going around about Daniel Berrigan giving Henry Kissinger a piece of advice when Berrigan had been operating for a while with a security clearance so high that no one knew it existed and Kissinger was just coming on board. If I’m getting it accurately, he said to Kissinger, “At first you’ll be in a state of panic at knowing all this terrifying stuff. Then -- as it keeps coming in -- you’ll get used to it and your map of the world will change so the surprise element falls out. Pretty soon, when people tell you what they think, you won’t be able to stop wondering what they would think if they knew what YOU know. But you can’t find out, because it’s all secret. So pretty soon you begin discrediting what they say because obviously they don’t know as much as you do. So you don’t listen to them. And the upshot is that you’ve lost all THAT information, so now you’re entirely dependent on the information that comes to you through that secret pipeline. And the people who decide what is in that pipeline have you captured.”

I take what I’m doing as an effort to break the pipeline that isn’t top secret but IS controlled by media and government. When Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix are all so convenient, it’s not very easy to evade them. But I’m temperamentally stubborn and experientially wary. Two or maybe three contexts reinforce this. One was living through the Sixties on a reservation that was still very largely nineteenth century and will never be able to defy and overlay the land the way an urban location can. One was being an emergency responder (animal control officer) who went into many many houses and neighborhoods, breaking up all maps of the city as shopping districts or ethnic enclaves. One was the ministry where I slowly realized what a machine a denomination is, no matter what its principles might be. Human institutions cannot refrain from perpetuating themselves until the larger situation shifts so much that they are obsolete.

57 variables is maybe a tenth of the variables that define me and that’s not counting my molecular body surges of thought, sleep, and food. “570” might be only the conscious variables that I think about every day as I set priorities and try to predict consequences. And I’m not including those about writing. Print IS my medium of choice -- not exclusively but at the point of the spear. I’m privileging some relationships and blocking others, sometimes to protect those blocked people from me, because I get a little riskier in what I say all the time and they freak out. Their goal is a steady state, not change. I’m surfing the times.

Mostly I resist attempts to diagnose and control me and that’s the tie between Tim and I, who are so different in some ways and so alike in others. He’s quite right that all we know about him is what gets through the filters, the one imposed by publishing and the one he imposes on himself. But how do we keep from just being the Dutch boy trying to stuff up holes in the dikes with our thumbs? Community, philosophical system, getting outside the bubble however we can, networking, dumping old assumptions. He travels: I don’t. Sometimes that means taking a needle to the balloon. Expect loud noises. Or a muted hiss.

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