Another Thing the Internet Can’t Do: On Curation and the Act of Discovery

Guest Post by Stuart Scadron-Wattles

I did not expect to give my eight-year-old grandson a stopwatch for Christmas, it just happened.

My wife Linda usually takes charge of the stocking stuffer gifts. With an extended family of eleven stretching over three generations and an agreed-on maximum of two gifts per stocking, it can be a daunting exercise. Linda has become a skilled surfer of the Internet, however, and between that and the nightly debriefing talks we were having, she was making progress.

Still, by the week before Christmas eight-year-old Joshua still did not have a gift, and neither did his two-year-old cousin Huxley.

So it was that we found ourselves at one of Seattle’s best toy and game stores on Sunday afternoon, braving the Christmas rush and wandering the aisles. Linda was seeking something for a two-year-old whose main enjoyment seemed to be throwing balls with increasing force and accuracy. I was dispatched to find “something that would get Josh off the couch and away from his Kindle.”

I was actually admiring an unusual ball (the store seemed to have thirty different kinds within three feet of each other) when I found the stopwatch: rugged, simple, it begged to be used to time races, bike rides, and sailboats. It was the antithesis of couch, and there was only one left on the shelf. I snatched it up triumphantly and brought it to Linda, who proclaimed it perfect, and asked me how I had thought of it.

Of course, I hadn’t been thinking about a stopwatch, I just happened across it. The area in which I was cruising for balls turned out to be devoted to outdoor toys.

This is the kind of thing that the Internet has yet to do, or at least do well. Even Amazon, the largest emporium in the world, has yet to do what Top Ten Toys did in less than five minutes.

But then, Top Ten Toys doesn’t know me, and Amazon thinks it does. Moreover, Top Ten Toys is interested in providing visitors with an experience of connections and associations. It places active toy samples at ground level, where your child can get to them; you no longer have to wonder about whether they might find the toy engaging.

It’s a crucial difference.

It turns out that the Internet is not really good at the adventure thing anymore. As Eli Pariser points out in his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You, the Internet is no longer an engine of worldwide discovery for its users. It has instead become an engine for gathering predilections and passing that information on to purveyors.

Whatever you click on, the Internet records and offers you something similar the next time you ask. And what was initially about selling you something has now been extended to news of the day and ideas.

Pariser points out that the same Google search on “Egypt” initiated by two different people, for instance, will yield two different results. Google knows what those two individuals have clicked on in the past, and that pattern will determine what the search shows each of them in the present. Facebook, by the way, does a similar thing with your friends who think differently from you. This is considered a feature, not a fault: Your personal, customized internet, with all of that off-beat or challenging stuff filtered out.

There is no algorithm for “show me something I didn’t know that I wanted to see.”

When I am looking for something to read, for instance, let’s say on my own Kindle, Amazon “has recommendations for Stuart.” It turns out that what they would like to sell me is remarkably similar to what I have already purchased from them.

In other words, I get to read what I already have read. Amazon gets to sell me something, and—assuming I repeatedly click the right button, my reading life begins to resemble life in these American suburbs: safe, familiar, smooth roads, with pre-approved credit limits, brand names, and architecture to match.

The Internet could do better than that. In fact, it already does, but—as with so much in life—one must seek out the adventure.

Or subscribe to it.

One of the perks of my job, for instance, is receiving ImageUpdate. I pay nothing for the privilege (actually, no one does), but I could easily just skim it when it comes into my inbox on a biweekly basis. After all, I work here, and my primary reason for reading it is to be knowledgeable about what Image produces.

ImageUpdate is one of those places on the Internet that doesn’t pretend to know you, it just knows what it likes.

Alright, yes, it’s written by human beings, one of whom has the office downstairs. But Tyler didn’t tell me about Dirty Love, Andre Dubus III’s new collection of short stories, an issue of ImageUpdate did.

And if I had not read that issue of ImageUpdate, I would not have had the distinct pleasure of having Mr. Dubus’s work weigh my heart, find it wanting, and use that imbalance to pivot me to the ground in a feat of writerly jiu-jitsu, not just once, but several times.

It was one of those worthwhile reading experiences that I would not have known to seek.

I am not a fan of all that ImageUpdate presents, but that’s the point: I can expect that there will be things I like and things I don’t. Nor will ImageUpdate seek to predict what I’ll click on; it has no profit stake in making sure that I click on anything.

Neither is it pretending to be unbiased: There is a selection process going on, an aesthetically-driven set of choices focused on the nexus of art, mystery, and faith. Like Top Ten Toys, it’s more of a series of connections and experiences.

During a 2011 TED presentation in Long Beach, California, Eli Pariser pleaded for an ethical internet search algorithm, one which would, for instance, allow you to tell your search engine that this time you’d like to see some dissenting viewpoints, or different perspectives. It’s a good thought; I hope it happens.

In the meantime, I am grateful for places like Top Ten Toys and ImageUpdate, where the offerings are curated and presented in a useable manner. There’s no entrance fee for either, and there may very well be an adventure in the offing.

Stuart Scadron-Wattles has at various times been a director, a playwright, an actor, and essayist, and still is a bit more trouble than he is worth. He is currently the director of resource development for Image.

Image is nearing completion of its annual campaign for funding. To support Image and the many adventures it promotes, click here.


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