Spirits in the Machine

16 Feb 2014

Alexis C. Madrigal for The Atlantic

The vexing, remarkable conclusion is that when companies combine human intelligence and machine intelligence, some things happen that we cannot understand.

Netflix is a remarkable company. Google may deal with more sheer data, but Netflix has come to understand its data better – the impressiveness of the way that it navigates the complexities of categories and genres. The grammar of film and television is still being composed: What is the syntax of the silver screen? The morphology of cinema? The pragmatics of script?

These questions go far beyond the precision with which Netflix recommends content, just as understanding the form of the novel was about more than simply selling copies. Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce, masters of paragraph landscape and sentence construction. Netflix is not engaged in comparable projects to Gravity’s Rainbow or Ulysses – as good as Orange is the New Black and House of Cards may be, they do not radically break the form.1 It is a first step though, one of analysis and understanding.

I am inclined to reject that the results of our thought and action are unintelligible. Ignorance, deliberate or otherwise, perhaps, but I distrust those that claim inadequacy. It may be true that we are lacking, but drive in the face of the impossible is the very marker of our being. Is it incomprehensible? Attempt at comprehension. Does it appear to be impenetrable? Try to pass through. Meekness in spirit all but ensures failure – which is not to say that boldness is a guarantee for success, it simply allows for the possibility where there was none before.

The rise of algorithmic thinking, the convergence between machine and human intelligence is upon us. Google and Netflix are obvious markers of it, although I wonder if it has not already long been the case. Algorithms are not a uniquely digital phenomenon. Regardless, this intersection is now the norm, not the exception; in addition to whatever else we may be, we are also algorithmic beings. To relegate this relationship to the realm of the unintelligible is to wallow in nihilism rather than teach our eyes to hear, our ears to see. The ballad of constant fools who rest comfortable in what seems to be.2

  1. Give me some more time to muse on House of Cards. It certainly is novel – forgive the deliberate pun – but the work that Beau Willimon has done is not radical. Gradual, precise, and entertaining. Certainly, but not radical. 

  2. None of this is a comment on Alexis’ article itself – it is an excellent piece that engages in exactly the kind of exploration that I am advocating for. My quibble is that the ending carries none of the same force as the rest of the thoughtful piece. Endings are difficult to pull off. Case in point.