I am a documentary film director. Subjects of my films have included love, sex, 9/11, indigenous fisheries, hurricanes, refugees, HIV/AIDS orphans, and visualization of God. I am best known for the Real People, Real Life, Real Sex series of documentaries that simultaneously explore the vital role of sexual pleasure in committed relationships and the problematic place of explicit sexuality in cinema. This is my "Safe" blog.

Instant Karma

Posted: September 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Google | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

So this Google Instant thing has made the rounds now, and my impression is that outside of sexy people, and the networkie people, and the I hate Google because they’re big and successful people, the various oddities around what does and doesn’t produce Instant Returns aren’t going to be seen as any great inconvenience by most people.

Yes, once you see how the game is played, you can get some odd results that will absolutely point out 1) as a culture, we have some pretty conflicted feelings about sex; and 2) that machines don’t do a very good job of making marginal calls.

For example, [Kim Kardashian] will return results instantly, but [Pamela Anderson] will not. [Alfred Kinsey] will return results instantly, but [Kinsey] will not.

What that says about The Algorithm, I don’t know, except that if you work in the area of sexuality and put yourself at the mercy of machines you do so at your own peril. I spent a good few hours poking the damn thing with a stick, and even on our own movie titles, I can’t figure out why some of them return instant results, and some of them get nothing but a white screen.

But as I’ve seen in countless comments on any number of blog posts and articles about Google Instant, if the search is really that important to you, you can just hit the ‘return’ key button, and Google will deliver the results to you, however hoary and gory they are.

Does it bother me that people don’t have to hit return to see results for [storm front]? Yes it does. But I’m sure that Google’s answer to this would be similar to the entertainment industry’s answer to the frequent accusations that there is too much sex and violence in movies, music, videogames.

The entertainment industry’s stock standard answer to these criticisms is that movies, music and videogames don’t shape culture, they reflect it; and I’m have no doubt Google would say that the user experience Instant provides is the user experience most people want, and what results are or are not shown in that experience reflects the values of the culture in which it exists.

On the subject of results, what I have noticed is that at least anecdotally as of today Google’s search results on things you would expect would return at least some sexually explicit results look a whole lot less scrubbed than they did a couple of years ago when I wrote about returns for the search [real sex], and Seth Finkelstein, writing for The Guardian, wrote about me writing about it. But what Seth wrote then still applies:

It’s become almost a cliche to point out that algorithmic choices made by search engines represent social values. But different factions care about different values, as demonstrated in the case of complex topics such as sex. As more groups begin to see how Google’s determinations affect their own interests, we’ll likely see repeated outrage from people newly arrived to these debates.

With the debut of Instant, what Google doesn’t show in its user interface and search returns seems to have received more attention than all the previous coverage added up. Between December 2006 and now, the wider world has become a little more cautious about the pervasiveness of Google in our lives.

Here at the at end of 2010, what had been a niche concern about Google’s power has evolved into a minor industry devoted to debating how so much control in the hands of one dominant, opaque company stands to effect our culture and our economy. I quoted Kevin Marks in my last Google post, but it’s worth quoting him again:

[Our dependance on algorithms] has only got worse since then; in some ways the computers programmed to write and evaluate prose are analogous to the computers programmed to securitize and trade mortagages – they are growing large enough to outweigh and destabilize the human activities that provides their reason to exist in the first place.

Rereading Mark’s quote puts me in mind of two tid-bits I came across in the last week.

The first is (IIRC) Nick Carr’s claim that today the average photo is looked at less than once. (Sorry, no citation)

The second was a tweet from Bethany Noviskie that the descipline of Biology alone produces two academic papers per minute, and production has outpaced the capacity for peer review.

And all added up, this reminds me of something independent director Victor Nunez said at a Kodak symposium I went to in 2003.

The symposium was ostensibly a sales pitch by Kodak to up-and-coming filmmakers to consider Super16 instead of the (much ballyhooed at the time) DV video. In a nutshell, the argument was that if everyone is shooting DV, the market would soon be flooded with films shot on DV, and in such a market, a project shot on film would not only look better, but more importantly, would stand out from everything else. To further the argument, Victor was there, talking about his experience shooting the Oscar nominated Ulee’s Gold, as well as other of his films on Super16.

But the thing that stuck with me was when Victor kind of sighed, and then offered with what seemed to me like deep resignation, “It’s getting to be an I’ll watch your film if you watch mine world.”

And that’s more or less what’s come to pass.

Just as there simply aren’t enough biologists to review all the biology papers being produced, there aren’t enough film goers to see (let alone pay to see) all the films that are being made. Nor are there enough readers to read all the books that are being written, or listeners  to listen to all the music that’s being made.

And the scarcest resource is no longer time, or money, or even inspiration — it’s attention.