Sunday, January 04, 2009

system gaming

Gaming The System

This year's Edge question is "What Will Change Everything? What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?" As usual, most of the respondents are long-windedly optimistic about the benefits of technology -- though frequently giving if-onlies to hedge their bets.

A favorite composer is therefore refreshingly contrary. Brian Eno tersely says: "Human development thus far has been fueled and guided by the feeling that things could be, and are probably going to be, better. But suppose the feeling changes ... Humans fragment into tighter, more selfish bands ... Long term projects are abandoned–their payoffs are too remote. Global projects are abandoned–not enough trust to make them work. Resources that are already scarce will be rapidly exhausted as everybody tries to grab the last precious bits ... Survivalism rules. Might will be right."

Eno is one of a tiny few fundamentally skeptical respondents. Most are not only (wholly or guardedly) optimistic, but also celebrants of the internet and its potentialities. Kevin Slavin, for example, tells us that our collective memory is being transposed from our individual brains to the complex ethereal archive of the Web: "We are moving towards a culture that has outsourced this essential quality of existence to machines, to a vast and distributed prosthesis." He dwells on the upside of this phenomenon. He says:
In just a few years, we’ll see the first generation of adults whose every breath has been drawn on the grid. A generation for whom every key moment (e.g., birth) has been documented and distributed globally. Not just the key moments, of course, but also the most banal: eating pasta, missing the train, and having a bad day at the office. Ski trips and puppies.

These trips and puppies are not simply happening, they are becoming data, building up the global database of distributed memories. They are networked digital photos – 3 billion on Flickr, 10 billion on Facebook. They were blog posts, and now they are tweets, too (a billion in 18 months). They are Facebook posts, Dopplr journals, Last.FM updates.

Further, more and more of these traces we produce will be passive or semi-passive. Consider Loopt, which allows us to track ourselves, our friends through GPS. Consider voicemail transcription bots that transcribe the voice messages we leave into searchable text in email boxes on into eternity. The next song you listen to will likely be stored in a database record somewhere. Next time you take a phonecam photo, it may well have the event’s latitude and longitude baked into the photo’s metadata.

The sharp upswing in all of this record-keeping – both active and passive – are redefining one of the core elements of what it means to be human, namely to remember. We are moving towards a culture that has outsourced this essential quality of existence to machines, to a vast and distributed prosthesis.
So does Gloria Origgi who says that "teh internets" are generating a collective wisdom via accumulation of reputation votes made on social sites. She looks forward to the use of social filtering to assemble a new age of knowledge based on the judgments of millions of others. There's sense in this. I frequently turn to Amazon for reviews of products in which I'm interested and give some respect to the star-system that Amazon provides for ranking consumers' experiences with the products. I do the same on the Sierra Trading Post site and other internet retailers with whom I have accounts. Like millions of others, I'm sure, I also check the reputation of eBay sellers before I bid on items they're auctioning. There are many other sites where user-contributed reputation markers can be useful. Their value seems most often to lie in giving information that adds to what you can learn from the promotional blurbs and photos (as for example whether the hat sizes true or is maybe half a size larger than marked). But it sometimes just warns you off, revealing the flaws of products, rather than their neutral characteristics or their strengths. For example, while looking for a new dehumidifier for our basement I was surprised to see negative reviews of all the Sears products on the Sears site itself. I've also used this negative weeding out on TripAdvisor and even Staples. Why would a web retailer give its users negative reviews of products it sells? I suppose it's sensible to conclude that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks; that and it may be that they understand that their reputation as a retailer would suffer if they were revealed to be censoring reviewer comments.

Still, the temptation to game the system is strong. I recall the way Google eclipsed AltaVista when the latter failed to develop an algorithm to defeat tricks that webmasters used to get their pages on top. Google itself has constantly to tweak its page rank system to keep it working properly. Likewise eBay struggles to prevent sellers from using elicit means to enhance reputation. Craigs List and many other sites have similar problems.

But beyond this system gaming, there's another problem with Origgi's prediction. It's that reputation is self-reinforcing. You can see this in Google search results that are obviously popular but not otherwise valuable. A recent study from MIT finds that this "steep tail" effect exists (See Long Tail or Steep Tail?) so does this Harvard study.

This supports my guess that internet retailers have learned that it's good business not to manipulate their customer review systems. They need fully-informed potential customers or they won't be able to sell the niche products along with the hyper-popular ones. And retailers like Amazon survive not on sales of best-sellers but on their success in moving the backlist.


Gloria Origgi has an interesting bunch of sites:

- her own home page
- a blog called Miscellanea
- a jointly-authored recipe blog called Tuttipiatti
- a blog-memoire called Autobiografia di mio figlio
- a blog which is a "melancholic dictionary of the expressions that were used in my childhood in Milan:" La figlia della gallina nera
- and yet another which she keeps only for family and friends: Il mio lessico familiare

Origgi uses this photo to illustrate a blog post on trust.

A philosopher and member of the French intelligentsia, she doesn't seem to be as fierce or as theory-bound as many of her kind are reputed to be. (You can see photos of her on the blogs cited above.)

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