Wisdom of the crowds or wisdom of the sheep?

We are living in the future that was imagined by many sci-fi movies. Yet I have found myself falling in love with ‘retro-futurism,’ created in the 60s. Key examples include: Stanley Kubricks’ space Odyssey, Metropolis and Solaris. Is it just nostalgia? 

Man had not yet gone to the moon when Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey was released in 1968. Kubrick was almost as futuristic as Leonardo Da Vinci imagining how an airplane would work. Space travel did not exist yet, the whole process of living in space and satellites belonged to the imaginary. Kubrick imagined space travel and illustrated it by filming ink on a page, whereas he gave the illusion of a foreign planet by over-saturating and dramatising remote landscapes on the earth. It is not merely do-it-yourself (DIY) visuals, it is art. His success is evident given that today the movie does not feel out of date, rather it has become a reference in cinema and beyond inspiring a whole design movement.

Today we have been to space, our scientific knowledge has vastly increased. We even have technology to simulate and test our different ideas. Space in movies is no longer conveyed using ink, but rather involves a hefty investment in CGI (computer generated imagery) and VFX (visual effects). Entire sets are modelled and made on the computer and then with photo compositing techniques the actors are placed in the fictional 3D space. This 3D space is governed by true physics and gravity. When you create a collision on the computer you are using properties like force and gravity. Our scientific knowledge is weaved into the softwares that are used. Fun fact, Hollywood not Science financed a lot of the research regarding black holes for its production of Interstellar. 

Although our technological know-how has progressed I have yet to watch a movie that has moved me in the way that Kubrick’s did. (Please send recommendations my way)

So what did Kubrick and others imagine about the future that we don’t have? I think these sci-fi movies didn’t predict the information revolution that would accompany the technological revolution. In case this is not clear, technology is the steam engine whereas information is the invention of the Gutenberg press that allowed books to be printed allowing information to spread a lot quicker.

Information and the way it is created and spreads has fundamentally changed. It is no longer centered around key institutions or individuals rather it has morphed into a system of crowd sourcing. The dilemma of harnessing crowds and crowdsourcing is one which we are all too familiar with. Wisdom of the crowds or wisdom of the sheep?

Aaron Koblin, a digital media artist, used this new way of gathering information to create an art piece called the sheep market. This piece used Amazon Turk* and commissioned ‘sheep facing left’ for $0,02 for a total of 10,000 sheep. The sheep were created in a simple program the equivalent of Microsoft Paint. They are lopsided and imperfect. Yet the limited tool kit makes each image quite raw and beautiful expressing the identity of the anonymous artists behind it. The example above show the power of crowdsourcing, as it allows for a huge number of individual minds to work together. However the reason it is successful is because the contributors are limited to a very specific task.

In the real world content is being produced in so many shapes and forms…good, bad, average, irrelevant and fake…The main challenge today has become filtering it. Machine learning and AI are being leveraged to help organise and give hierarchy to information. The reason certain pages rank higher on google is not just ads. Google crawls your website and looks at the relevance between your keywords and content. There are specific rules as to what makes a site more readable. In companies some people’s entire job is to make the website conform to Google’s readability standards. So instead of having many different sheep, Google is trying to optimise by generalising what a sheep should be. Ultimately this whole study has blossomed into its own topic known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

It’s not just Google. Instagram is also continuously playing with what we see trying to understand how to keep us hooked. My screen time is a testimony to their success. Sci-fi did not predict the information web and the various layers of complication that this would add. This sifting of information means that certain sheep get famous while others don’t. Most don’t. These algorithms are creating reinforcing echo chambers.

So welcome the twenty-first century, a century dominated by many fluffy sheep. A world where we have never been so connected and never shared so much knowledge. The challenge is figuring out when to cry wolf. What is true, what is fake news? What is original, what is copied and pasted. Algorithms are left to sift the information and we get what they deem might be interesting to us. But AI for now does not dream:  it does not know that a passionate voice can make even a discourse on Mackerel and fishing interesting, not just to fishermen.

AI is filtering through the layers and layers of content being produced: putting things into books which are then placed into shelves. I don’t want to begin to imagine the multitude of books and shelves. If Google were a library I imagine it to be a huge maze of book shelves. These shelves are actually huge towers. In the background a bell is continuously ringing as new content knocks on the door. The library is managed by robots who are frantically trying to keep up. Constantly replacing and re-ordering books. But where I would like to get lost is in the part of the library which is quiet where books are picking up dust and eventually becoming dust themselves. I can’t help but think of a cemetery of forgotten thoughts.

Maybe a space odyssey equivalent was created; we were too busy with what the latest hit the algorithm found funny. I am trying to imagine an AI chuckle now. Or maybe it’s the algorithms laughing at us as they feed us another post of avocado toasts.

xx The Pineapple

*Amazon Turk – Is one of the first websites that leveraged the power of crowds and created a marketplace that could allow companies to use these crowds. The computer is very good at solving many binary tasks, however image recognition is something that until now is very difficult for a computer, by using Amazon Turk lots of companies offloaded simple tasks like recognising cars in a scene. This is also why recaptcha tests often ask you to click the images that have cars, signs…etc.

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