I want to search and find. Not be fed.

Struggle against algorithms

Adesh Fr
3 min readSep 20

Photo by Niklas Ohlrogge on Unsplash

There was a guy at the music store. Whenever I went to buy music, he said, ‘You will love this,’ and recommended CDs. I bought into his suggestions but when I went back home and listened, I hated most of it. For example, he suggested Backstreet Boys based on my liking for Blink 182 because he might have thought I liked boy groups who made pop music but what I liked in Blink 182 was not the pop but the punk.

There was another guy at the movie store. Whenever I went to rent movies, he would say, ‘You will love this,’ and suggest DVDs. I listened to him but when I went home and watched the movie, I hated it. For example, he suggested Titanic based on my renting of The Departed because he might have thought I liked Leonardo DiCaprio but what I liked in The Departed was the thrill.

There was a guy at the bookstore. Whenever I went to buy books, he would say, ‘You will worship this,’ and pull books out of the shelf and dust them off. Even though the cover/blurb/back cover shouted no, I trusted him. When I came home and read the first page, I wanted to throw the book and kill the guy. He suggested a book about Greece based on my previous purchase of Greek History but the reason I bought that book would be Greek philosophy.

Now let me tell you a fact: There were no such guys.

But there is Spotify, Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon — tools that use algorithms to recommend based on my previous activities. And I don’t like most of what they recommend because their algorithms make assumptions like the hypothetical store guys, but worse: they judge. Some of the recommendations from Spotify/Netflix/YouTube/Amazon AI turn out to be good because when you make guesses out of all relevant criteria, you are bound to be correct in one or two.

And some of my self-selections turn out bad too. So the problem isn’t the type of recommendation. It’s the act of recommendation.

The best music stores I visited had well-defined sections of genres that I could explore (without having to meet or greet the person in charge at the store). I would buy CDs based on what I had heard from friends/TV or based on the design, etc., and love or hate the CD based on what makes me love or hate. The best thing about that was that I could know myself and what I love or hate and why I love or hate them based on those experiences. Listening to CDs recommended by the store in charge would teach me not to listen to him again and nothing more. So the best music stores I visited had store in-charges who didn’t talk to you.

The same applied to movie and book stores. The best had well-defined categories and would allow me to explore free. Whatever I loved or hated would be my glory or agony.

Coming back to Spotify, Netflix, YouTube, Amazon:

I don’t believe we can now change how they behave. But we can ignore them. Or at least, we can make an attempt to discover our art through search rather than through scheme.