Monday, January 21, 2019

The Long Tail is a Snare

Twice now I‘ve inadvertently clicked into Beatles-related discussion on Quora, and, ever since, I’ve been besieged with links to Beatles crap - on Quora's site, in their app, in the weekly digest they email me, and in ads which follow me around the Internet. I am a Beatlemaniac. I've been categorized, and so that’s what I am. It's decided.

Cattle-herding is instinctive for Silicon Valley execs. On a mass scale, it's been shifting us toward a society out of a dystopian 1970s sci-fi film, striated by shallow beehive determinism. As humanity continues to evolve beyond its brutally tribalistic roots, we can thank these brainy visionaries for doing all they can to loop us back into all that, only without the actual culture. Advertising long ago metastasized into a beast so pandemic that it can easily wag the dog, and this is where the wagging's left us: Neo Tribalism. A vapid landscape of spiritually empty, utterly silent (aside from the almighty Marketing Message) granfalloons. Enjoy your silo.

Isn’t this precisely the path of Fox News, making hay with extreme partisanship by stoking and monetizing, stoking and monetizing, like efficient dairy farmers whose livestock is us? They do this while purporting to be of service, which would sound hypocritical except for the regrettable but indisputable fact that foi gras geese really do appreciate the greasy feed perpetually sliding into their waiting gullets. We love us some Skinner Box. As I once wrote, a perpetually rewarded lab animal feels downright self-actualized.
If the subject is a chicken, which is basically a biological device for pecking endless grain, you set up your Skinner box to feed the chicken. And the chicken will never stop responding in the way you've trained it to. It never "gets wise". Blessed with the result it most seeks, there's no reason to ask deeper questions. The chicken thinks it's just killin' it.
For similar reasons, I find identity politics disgusting. Sizing up my schnozz and assuming that I‘m dying to vote for a Jew - or, at very least, a WASP who diligently appears on TV chomping matzoh balls, wearing a yarmulka, and pandering to my assumed vested interest in Israel (one imagines me singing the word cantorially, eyes rolling heavenward in Zionist fervor, as my wrinkled garments emit the haimish odor of stale onion and poppy seeds).

We are the most belligerently anti-racist society in the history of the world, yet reductive stereotypes are our bread and butter; baked into our commerce, our politics, our media, and our advertising...really, what else is there?And we never object, so long as everyone diligently tiptoes around tripwire language. 

I've fallen in love with the “long tail” of current-day commerce, data, and networking platforms. As a person with diverse and often misfit interests - who doesn’t buy any of the ten most popular breakfast cereals and who spurns multiplexes - I saw this coming in the 90s and have basked in it ever since. I can connect directly with any sort of idea, media, or merchandise, always cutting right in at my point of interest (no one on Chowhound ever asked “So how was your day?”). It’s heaven.

My first glimmer of the potential downside came in 2005, when I observed that marketers had grown so subtly insidious that even conscientious resisters like me could be ensnared by their targeting. I never imagined that it would come to this: that each time I shift attention, my landing spot would be of profound interest to myriad algorithmic klieg lights, dispatching virtual bear traps to latch on and ensure my enduring categorization. I never suspected the long tail was really mostly an infinitely multiband snare.

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