Film: Those Devil Algorithms Again
By Henry P. Raleigh
ART TIMES July/ August 2012
I have a device connected to my television and cable box. It appears harmless enough—little more than 3”x3,” barely noticeable. An equally unobtrusive remote is included, of tasteful design; it has no excessive display of buttons. The ‘big’ button, as I call it, bears a simple OK. Other remotes I have known prefer a dictatorial Enter or a cryptic SEL, which I find a bit intimidating. Now this ensemble is known as ROKU 2 or just ROKU; either way it does sound like a film by Akira Kurosawa. Its purpose is to provide access to any of the films in Netflix’s streaming library. I don’t know how it can do this. I do have loftier things on my mind, but I imagine the ROKU is stuffed with algorithms as everything else is nowadays. However, once you have developed the skills necessary to juggle three remotes, television, cable, ROKU, and coordinate their profusion of buttons in the proper sequence, only then are you in business — those wee algorithms go right to work, busily scurrying here and there arranging movies in neat and convenient categories all to satisfy your every cinematic wish. It’s true, I must admit that in the past I have mocked and made sport of those tiny fellows and yes, I have spoken dismissively of their cultural value — yet here they were, forgiving, letting bygones by bygones, and even introducing right off the bat a category headed TOP TEN FOR HENRY. Imagine that, top selections tailored for me alone. How many people can have their personal ROKU category, I ask you?
Still, in the glow of pleasure at ROKU’s gift there did linger questions. What do the algorithms know? How do they know it? Why do they want to know? A quick browse through the selections would certainly reveal just how accurate is their judgment of me. Excitedly I began, nimbly hitting the right button at first try and up pops, “The Complete History of My Sexual Failures”—a 2009 film I know nothing about nor would I care to. I’m puzzled; surely “The Secret of My Success” of 1987 would have been more appropriate. A mistake, perhaps, I went on to the next, “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead.” Alarmed, that was followed by “The Four-Faced Liar” and that by “Jackass 3.” I see a pattern unfolding confirmed by the next four — “The Thing with Two Heads,” “Slacker,” “Knucklehead,” and “Obscene.” The final two are clearly threats — “Kill the Irishman” and “Dead Man.” Now I see through the algorithms’ malicious scheme. The sinister inhabitants of the ROKU know perfectly well I have no interest in those films; it is the titles alone that bear their mean-spirited message. Oh, this is payback for my past comments given in light-hearted jest. The algorithms, humorless creatures, have not forgiven, they wish to insult and humiliate me. I’m sure that is what is going on here. Occasionally the TOP TEN FOR HENRY may drop a title adding one equally unpleasant in its place. “I Like Killing Flies” turned up one day. The algorithms, thinking this too lame, substituted “Atrocious” within two days. This is how they operate, you know.
I’ve noticed of late a small blue light on the face of ROKU that remains on long after the television and cable box have been shut down. Perhaps this is simply to signal the device is on but, if so, why does it remain if no longer at work? I have the feeling it only shuts off when I’m no longer in its beam. I recall a 1999 film “Fatal Error” in which a device called a DIGICRON of approximately the same size and look of ROJU sat on top of a television set, its single eye became calcified, falling to the floor and breaking into pieces. I’m not claiming that ROKU and DIGICRON are one and the same, yet it’s funny how much alike they do seem to be. There’s no end to the mischief any of these algorithms are capable of — and there it sits, its blue eye peering at me — watching and waiting, watching and waiting.