Rants & Ramblings

random commentary about culture, media, politics, technology and whatnot.


ghost in the machine

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting story by Jeffrey Zaslow on Nov. 26 about TiVo and Amazon.com users who were frustrated with the program/product recommendations each service’s system offered them (based on past orders), and how some users are trying to “fake out” the systems.

Though some users contend TiVo has sex on the brain, TiVo’s general manager, Brodie Keast, explains that the box is merely “reacting to feedback you give it.” Still, the machine employs algorithms — searching several thousand key details (favorite actors, movie and TV genres) — that leave some people wondering whether it is judging their predilections.

Mr. Karlsson, 26, says he “pre-emptively” found all the religious shows in his TV listings and used the “thumbs down” button on his remote control to tell TiVo he has no interest in them. (Giving three thumbs down is the best way to block a program.) After that, his TiVo recorded movies about creepy homicides. “They all have titles like ‘Murder on Skeleton Isle,’” says the computer system administrator in Cambridge, Mass.

He uses the “thumbs” button to tell TiVo he hates such films. He also orders cooking shows, which softens TiVo’s view of him. “I don’t want it thinking I’m an ax murderer,” he says.

I sometimes spend far too much time weeding things out of Amazon.com’s recommendations list for me, mainly because I know that if I feed Amazon more information about my preferences, it’ll churn out more accurate recommendations for me. I also realize, in the back of my head, that Amazon is using my preferences to market things to me that I would be more likely to buy, that my activity on the site helps them make recommendations to other users, and that they’re probably using my preference/demographic info for nefarious marketing/commercial purposes that I’m not aware of. But despite all this, the egomaniac in me likes the personalization, the “all about me”-ness of it.

What I think is so interesting about the users the WSJ cites is how they interact with these recommendations databases. They’ve developed a relationship with their technology — TiVo, Amazon.com — and have in some way imbued it with human characteristics. These users obsess about the recommendations not just because they don’t like the recommendations themselves, but because they don’t want TiVo to have some skewed idea of who they are.

On a related note, Wired has had some interesting stories by Leander Kahney about the “Cult of Mac” and the relationship between Mac users and their computers:
Baby, Friend, Pet: That’s My Mac (12/06) - Macintosh users associate human characteristics with their machines — and that’s one of the keys to Mac loyalty, psychologists and anthropologists say.
Fetishists Really Love Their Macs (11/18) - Some Apple devotees take their love for all things Mac further than others. In one case, a man fell in love with his PowerMac G3. “Sex toy” doesn’t begin to describe it.