Anxiously refreshing Twitter to see how people were responding to my blog relaunch got me thinking about a story I heard a while ago. Check it out:
In AD 1941, war was beginning. I mean it had been going on for a while but that’s when AMERICA got involved, so that’s when it started mattering. The empire of Japan was sending boats full of soldiers all up over everywhere, because they wanted to own everything. Meanwhile the United States of America was sending boats full of soldiers all up over everywhere ELSE, because they didn’t want Japan to have all the fun. One of the places the US sent boats and soldiers was an archipelago called Vanuatu — a small island chain northeast of Australia, and future home of the ninth season of Survivor.
Now, war sucks, but it comes with a lot of sweet loot. All the gun boys need food and blankets and candy and cigars or they get hungry and bored and start shooting the wrong people. So when America moved in to Vanuatu, they built air strips and started airdropping INSANE AMOUNTS OF MASS-PRODUCED GOODS on an island where grass-roofed huts were still the height of technology.
Most of these goods were for the soldiers, but a ton of stuff ended up being given to the native inhabitants, in exchange for being chill about the whole military occupation thing. And the dudes who received these goods got really attached to this lifestyle. SO attached, that when the war ended and all the troops moved away, these dudes started imitating what they thought were the mystical rituals that summoned all the sweet loot. They built their own air strips, and did their own military parades, and made radios and airplanes out of coconut husks and straw. They figured if they did all the things they saw the soldiers do, then goods would rain from the sky!
PRETTY FUCKING STUPID, RIGHT?
Groups who did this were referred to as “cargo cults” and used as an example of consumerism or being a dummy or whatever. But leaving aside the fact that this probably isn’t exactly how things happened, put yourself in the cargo cultists’ shoes for a second. You’ve never seen any of this shit before. The goods coming out of these planes totally changed your life. Wouldn’t you do anything you could think of to make those goods come back, once they were gone?
It’s NORMAL for humans to look at a system and try a bunch of weird shit to make candy come out. It’s how we ended up drinking from cow tits and eating chicken periods. And more and more these days, it’s how we use the internet.
I used to write product descriptions for power tools I had never used. It was kind of an interesting challenge. I had keyword quotas that I had to hit — each tool description had to use words like “power tool” and “best” and “quality” a certain number of times. I wasn’t writing like this for the benefit of other humans. I was writing for the benefit of search engines. Write a perfectly informative product description without using the right number of magic words, and the search engines wouldn’t see it. And if the search engines didn’t see it, neither would the humans who used those search engines.
SEO gibberish speak has become a cargo cult ritual. Every google result is a listicle. Porn titles read like lists of ingredients. Recipe blogs have gotten longer and longer, defying anyone’s attempt to use them. They’re not for people to read, they’re for machines to read.
Like a true cargo-cult, this algorithm worship has gone on so long we’ve lost sight of its original purpose. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, a webcomic which I no longer enjoy but which I will read forever out of a grudging sense of familiarity, includes a red button under each comic, which can be clicked to view a little bit of bonus content. Clicking this button used to register as a vote on one of the popular webcomic ranking services of the time, essentially bribing users to catapult SMBC to the top of the rankings. The rankings no longer exist, but the button does, and we still press it.
Because it’s not just content creators who participate in this cult. We as consumers have also adopted bizarre rituals. When I search for a pirated movie, I type “watch The Room online free putlocker” as if I’m casting a spell or having a stroke. When I prompt Midjourney, I type, “anime girl long hair studio ghibli big titties trending on Artstation.” This is not poor grammar. This is not improper English. It’s not even English. It’s machine language.
We put up with this garbage because we’ve created a system in which a machine HAS to sort our content for us. We can’t go to a place, switch to a channel, and just see what’s on. There’s too much stuff, and it’s on all the time. We barely know what we want in the first place, so how can we ask a machine to give it to us? Instead, the machine gives us what it has determined we want . When a machine determines the value of the input, and who gets to see the output, we end up producing and consuming not what we enjoy, but what the machine enjoys. The decision has been taken entirely out of our hands. We’re just standing on the landing strip, waiting for the planes to arrive.
(OR you could ditch the algorithm entirely and sign up for my friggin newsletter!)