Decisions, Decisions

Lev Grossman's recent article in Time on the form and function of recommendation engines draws distressingly close to the coda of my recently finished dissertation, and there's no doubt he's remembered his years as a Comp Lit PhD student at Yale. In an earlier post, I wrote on some of the connections between Milton's Raphael and Google's PageRank algorithm as superhuman mediators of what we would call information overload, and some of that found its way into my conclusion. Grossman's article begins and ends with nods in the direction of the eighteenth century, and the issue at stake is the same: how to select what's worth paying attention to when faced with overwhelming volume.

The question Grossman asks of recommendation engines--the software responsible for matching what you've watched, heard, bought, etc. against other things you might like to watch, hear, buy, etc. and letting you know it's available--in his openers is "can a computer really have good taste?" The matters of taste and discernment of course ring rather a large bell in the addled brain of your average eighteenth-century scholar given what several authors of the time (especially Pope and Swift) perceived as a "deluge" of impolite or otherwise pointless writing the rising tide of which threatened to sink all boats and swamp the nation. If in Paradise Lost humanity emerged from the garden dependent on their powers of discernment to know good from evil, then under the Augustan conservatorship of taste and judgment discernment became the critical faculty by which the fragments of knowledge worth keeping would be separated from those better left to what Harold Weber has described as the "'garbage heap' of memory." Plenty of other authors and editors got into this act as well; indeed, whole genres emerged to do the work of selection so the poor reader wouldn't have to. Magazines like The History of the Works of the Learned and The Present State of the Republick of Letters, for example, accounted for what they defined as the most notable or most valuable works from Britain and beyond and left the rest to descend into oblivion.

In writing of the Digital Deluge, Grossman returns to an old analogy. Online retail provides us with a lot of choice--so much choice, he says, that "we're drowning in it." The recommendation engines (like the search engines of Google, Bing, what have you, that reduce the immensity of the web to ranked lists of returns) serve as what he calls an "informational prosthesis" that winnows the potentially paralyzing embarrassment of riches down to something manageable. Whereas Pope, however, would have had you (and everyone else, I think) rely on his good taste to set out something of a curriculum, the recommendation engine relies on your taste and that of your peers to point you towards something you're likely to like. If I were feeling particularly pedantic or just outright snooty I'd try to make an argument about taste versus preference, but it wouldn't get me anywhere. Fashion, if I can dive into the late 19th century for a moment, is what one wears oneself, and you already know the rest.

Grossman ends on a note lamenting the technodetermined perpetuation of existing preferences as opposed to the more locally driven processes of truly personal recommendation and serendipitous discovery (that old chestnut) that have the power to expand rather than reify the boundaries of one's "taste." And for reasons not so far passing understanding as they seem, he notes that, among other things, recommendation engines "won't force you to read the 18th century canon."

Damn right, I say--that's my job. Like plenty of authors, poets, and critics before me, I too am an "informational prosthesis" designed to function (at least in part) as a mediator of and remedy for information overload. If you liked Pamela, you'll like Tristram Shandy. You're bloody well going to read it, at any rate.

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