Secrets and Lies — and Google

November 29, 2010

There is an almost hysterical paranoia that permeates the air these days, concerning the information that is being collected about us and helping us make decisions, in many ways without our knowledge. What am I talking about? The secret of success for everything from Google searches to your mortgage approval process: algorithms.

And secret they are. Much of the fear about them is that they are “black boxes” about which we know little, and yet they are making decisions for us every day. In the process, some worry, they are taking away our capacity for decision-making and automating processes in which human input may be necessary to correct inconsistencies or mistakes. An extended report in The Globe & Mail last week examined the impact such incomprehensible and inaccessible mathematical formulas can have: according to the data collected, buying floor protectors at Canadian Tire might signal a conscientious borrower; late-night website browsing may indicate anxiousness and, in combination with a host of other minor activities, derail a credit application.

Google is another example: it uses complex algorithms to filter information to find exactly what it thinks we need, or, as its mission statement says, to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It also provides us with ads, of course, based on our search history and preferences and in theory tailored to our needs. Even online dating websites such as OkCupid and eHarmony make extensive use of algorithms to predict who will make a good match. The information that comes out of such sites is a fascinating look at the likes and dislikes of a broad cross-section of the population.

The formulas used are secret, of course, in order to protect the competitive advantages of the organizations they serve. What surprises me is why there is such intense fear of them, these unknown equations that guide our choices. We are not forced to click on any of the links Google serves up. We’re not even forced to use Google as our search engine. If we want a local plumber, we can always use the Yellow Pages, where prominence is determined by advertising payments. Is this any better?

Perhaps it is the lack of control that is so terrifying. Because algorithms filter information for us, there is an unimaginable amount that we just never see. We literally don’t know what we don’t know. Somehow this seems more sinister than the way it used to be when we were all relatively more ignorant, perhaps because, through the Internet, we are now aware of there being a lot more information out there.

Does Google have a sinister hidden agenda? One would think that such a thing would go against its code of conduct of not being evil. Does OkCupid? Likely not, but in filtering information to satisfy our (perceived) needs and wants, argues Alexis Madrigal in this month’s Atlantic, algorithms can serve to maintain the status quo – or even prevent shifts in societal norms:

By drawing on data about the world we live in, [algorithms] end up reinforcing whatever societal values happen to be dominant, without our even noticing. They are normativity made into code—albeit a code that we barely understand, even as it shapes our lives.

Madrigal goes on to say that Google, OkCupid and their ilk give us only “a desiccated kind of choice,” and that we need to break the patterns by choosing against type. We need to make ourselves less predictable, to click unexpected links and choose unexpected partners, presumably in order to ensure that society in general doesn’t stagnate. Don’t trust The Man and all that.

The growing paranoia that unseen and unchecked forces are predicting – even controlling – our behaviour seems to be growing even faster than fear of Yemeni terrorists. I think it relates back to our growing cynicism and distrust toward all large organizations. Believing in anything at all is seen by many as a mug’s game. Trust in governments is ever-declining, the more we find out about how they conceal the truth from citizens, or tap their phone lines, or watch their goings-on. People now, on average, trust NGOs (even ones that are affiliated with large government organizations) much more than governments themselves, and certainly more than the politicians and bureaucrats that staff them. Faith in organized religion has plummeted amid endless sex scandals that are officially acknowledged too late (if at all), refusals from the highest levels to acknowledge the damage done by outdated policies, and generally divergent values from most Westerners about gay marriage, reproductive rights, and female clergy members.

I’ve written before about what apathy and extreme cynicism look like in modern society. I neglected to mention an obsession with knowing the “truth,” even if part of us believes that truth to be fictional or compromised. Hence the enduring popularity of the “exposé,” tabloid journalism, insider specials, and now WikiLeaks, the non-profit whistle-blower organization that is making news (again) this week with the release of thousands of diplomatic cables sent by US ambassadors. Despite pleas from the White House not to release the information (potentially jeopardizing thousands of lives, and undermining US diplomacy and counter-terrorism efforts), the obsession to reveal won out, and the cables were posted anyway.

Why? Secrets may not be entirely benign, but what seems to be missing from the discussion is the idea that neither might their release be. In an age of over-sharing, of laying open our most personal thoughts for the world to see, is even the necessary secrecy of diplomacy unwelcome? It has fallen victim to the public’s need to know anything and everything — or else there must be some ominous conspiracy at play. In democracies, utter transparency seems to be the only option palatable to citizens, and we are unnerved when it isn’t available, so we turn to (often illegal) means of obtaining information, such as WikiLeaks.

It seems we are experiencing a seismic shift in the way we are continually using and desiring more information.  Should we expect it to be entirely accessible at all times, to all people? Knowledge is power, as they say, and everybody wants more. The irony, of course, is that everybody also wants privacy: WikiLeaks, for example, will not disclose its sources, or its founders. One wonders how long they can expect to keep that a secret.

Encore, Encore! On Music and Unpredictability

November 18, 2010

I attended a remarkable performance at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last night, and after a partial standing ovation, I was surprised to discover that we would be treated to an “encore” of sorts. Naturally, as is now the custom, it was not a repeat of anything we had just heard, but a different piece entirely. I recalled other acts I’ve seen where an encore was welcome and the pieces increasingly popular (for example, with George Michael, who did three, each contaning songs better and more well-known than the last). There were others where encores were notably absent, and the audience felt almost as though they hadn’t had their money’s worth from the evening.

I assumed it was a growing trend, this repeated encore thing, perhaps showing my bias of believing my contemporaries far sillier than our ancestors in putting up with and propagating it. Some research, however, has proven me to be wrong on this score. According to Oxford music historian Michael Burden, giving “encore” performances in fact dates to the early eighteenth century Italian opera circuit in London, when audiences would call for a repeat of an aria by a particularly good prima donna or primo uomo – sometimes right after the initial performance of the piece itself. This means audiences, who had already heard the main theme twice (as per the common ABA da capo format of such music) would ask for it again, and sometimes multiple times, with increasing ornamentation each time from the singer. It all got to be a bit much for some opera-goers, fatigued by performances that were already getting to be increasingly long, sometimes to one o’clock in the morning. (No doubt this was especially hard on those who only attended the opera for fashion’s sake.) It also became too much for many singers, who would often become exhausted and even have to take an extended break to rest their voices. Yet those who did not capitulate would be punished, sometimes for years, in the form of hissing amongst audience members and derision in the fashionable papers.

Thus, a tradition was invented. It appears we are now able to exercise some restraint in our calls for “encores,” and yet we still expect them. It is part of the performance, the elaborate dance between the musicians on stage and the audience. We are all performers now – we play our parts as appreciative audiences with the requisite ovation, even perhaps the standing sort – over the course of an evening. It can be tiresome, all this pageantry, when one might simply prefer to attend a concert, hear the lovely music, pay due appreciation, and depart. (And please feel free to debate with me in the comments section whether you believe standing ovations to be too common and expected – as I do – or audiences too stingy if they fail to leap to their feet – as I’ve heard.)

But the pageantry is now one of the only defining features of live music, encores included. The music is usually not new to us, as it was to eighteenth-century opera-goers. We can hear it whenever we like. So why attend a concert in person when we all have access to world-class recordings of any imaginable piece we would want to hear at the click of a button? Why bother with the expense, the inconvenience of travelling to and fro, the irritation of listening to hacking coughers rattling lozenge wrappers in the seats behind us, when we can simply enjoy the same music in surround sound with sub-woofer enhancements from the comfort of our own homes?

It’s the unpredictability, the multi-sensory experience, the feel of being in the audience. Pick-and-choose music downloading programs like iTunes (and of course Napster, LimeWire, and the like) have brought the recording industry to its knees. They’ve also hampered the ability of artists to choose how their music will be enjoyed (i.e. in the form of track layout on albums, etc.). But it is the appeal of live music, with its surprises, unpredictability and interactivity, that will ensure the continuation of the music industry. Differentiation will come in the form of the unexpected, even if we as audiences expect some kind of extras to make attending worth our while. We will ask musicians to push the limits of how we experience music. After all, as Burden points out, the whole idea of an encore is “not simply to hear it again, but by definition, … to hear it differently.”

We might as well expect more of them. Encore.

What Passing-Bells: Why I Remember

November 10, 2010

Local news sites are reporting that only 10% of Torontonians are wearing their poppies this year. Canadian designers are proposing new twists on the old red design that appeal more to young people, arguing that Remembrance Day risks being “lost” in a society where Gen Y apparently can’t identify with its purpose. There are fewer and fewer veterans from World Wars I and II every year to serve as a visual reminder of our military past (and present). Has Remembrance Day run its course?

This question was brought up in my presence recently, and I surprised myself with the vehemence of my reply: no. It is a very real and very necessary act of reflecting on our national history – but has implications for the present as well.

I am admittedly sentimental. I am in favour of more reflection in general about where we’ve come from and how it influences where we’re going, as nations and as individuals. And I find myself drawn to the turn-of-the-century age of our history more than most – the Ralph Vaughan Williams hymns, the neo-Gothic wrought iron and stone architecture, the sense of old boy imperial camaraderie, the Rupert Brooke poetry, and so on. But Remembrance Day is about much more than that.

With two global wars in which our nation’s soldiers are fighting, several others in which they are keeping the peace, and an untold number of skirmishes appearing daily in the news, war is an ever-present concern, not a ‘memory.’ Though many of the veterans of the First and Second World Wars have now died, there are new veterans every year, and they are physical reminders of how important it is to call attention to their sacrifices and the sacrifices of their families, even if only once a year.

This is especially true in a country like Canada, which has relatively recently styled itself a peace-loving, liberal refuge – a national self-image quite different from what it was 100 or even 50 years ago. It is necessary sometimes to call attention to the gritty underside of democracy, and the constant vigilance it requires to create and uphold, a struggle we see play out daily on the other side of the world. We are too comfortable assuming it has no relevance to us, that we were born free and needn’t concern ourselves with anyone else’s chains.

Some people oppose what they see as a militaristic strain in the ceremonies that celebrates war. I see Remembrance Day as the opposite: a sad commentary on the continuing tragedy begot by national hubris. Nations at the end of the nineteenth century were trumped-up on their own importance, caught in a feedback loop that emphasized their own moral and military superiority and desperate to prove themselves the greatest of all peoples. There are loud echoes down to today. War is as much about pride as it is about land and resources. At a time when economies and cultures are cloistering themselves in robes of protectionism and the comfort of historically-derived principles at the expense of dialogue and cooperation, the sharp reminder of the destruction of insularity and war is particularly potent.

I usually attend the University service because it is a sad reminder that many of those who fought – and died – were men and women younger than I am. The newspapers refer to them as a generation that had to grow up quickly. No doubt. Most of us never have to come face-to-face with our most basic values surrounding life and death. Most of us never have to choose between killing someone else and being killed. Most of us don’t face adjusting to life after combat, the surreal juxtaposition of normalcy at home and the violence of memory. But in war these decisions and adjustments are made every day.

History can often seem removed, and the further back it is the less we are able to empathize with and understand those who lived it.  Its personages seem to stride in, fully formed, painted in bold colours as heroes and villains. We need Remembrance Day to show us that these heroes were made, not born. They were as much the architects of their lives and destinies as we are. They were – and are – us.

We live physically and morally comfortable lives. They died, often in agony and discomfort, so we could continue to do so. We promised we would remember. It’s the very least we can do.


  1. OpenFile is a local news source that reports on what readers request. Their special feature on Remembrance Day includes articles and interactive features about Toronto’s military history and veterans, including a Google map overlaid with poppies representing Toronto’s fallen soldiers from WWII and where they lived. It’s worth a look. (thanks, Gareth.)
  2. For those who are literarily inclined, or who were wondering where the first three words of this post’s title originated, I have linked below to some of my favourite war poems:

(I would welcome additional links to your favourites in the comments section below.)