Brendan Fernandes, New Primitivism 2
Technology and the Web

Tribal Hunches

Natalie gave one of her fabulous dinner parties again. I still don’t know how she manages to make it all look so effortless. I know that a lot went on in the kitchen so that we could sit down to a yummy gingered carrot-and-coconut cream soup and a perfectly roasted wild turkey with a cranberry rice stuffing. But Natalie is so cool about everything you’d think she was one of the guests. Maybe it’s because she’s truly more interested in her guests than in the food, however scrumptious her cooking is.

She always manages to assemble the most interesting people around her. Or people who can talk interestingly about a lot of interesting things. Not sure if it’s the same thing. In any event Natalie’s parties make me feel smarter than I really am. And I always have the sense that the day after the party I’ll have something I hadn’t had before; it’s like the morning after a sex party in a Berlin fetish club: you discover you’ve got phone numbers in  your pocket or an invitation for a weekend in the Brandenburg countryside or Chlamydia. In the case of Natalie’s parties it’s ideas and stories, or just things that stick in your mind.

I drank more than I should have. I’m never fully conscious of how much I drink at Natalie’s. Someone always seems to be filling my glass, though of course that begs the question why my glass keeps emptying itself in the first place. The wine at Natalie’s is as good as the conversation, and both run like a coursing stream. It feels a bit like Piaf’s song, Let Mots d’Amour, how the last words of one line start the next, and the song starts to cascade along like white-water rapids. I don’t know which is more intoxicating, the talk or the wine. Ok, I do know which, but I still got swept up in both.

With the pending passage of the most anti-labor labor legislation in post-war memory and a 2011 budget that foresees even higher taxes and deeper wage cuts, it was inevitable that the conversation would turn at some point to politics. There had been another general strike that Wednesday, which degenerated into the usual vandalism along the main commercial avenues: store windows smashed, garbage dumpsters set afire, bus stop shelters torn down. We agreed this was clearly misdirected anger.  Timothy said it needs to be rechanneled to a more productive target and suggested tax-evading doctors, a proposal we all seconded.

I think Natalie was probably ready that evening to take charge of the guerrilla action herself. “All the social institutions that could do something—the media, the courts, the police—they’ve all been so corroded and corrupted that we can’t expect them to do shit. It’s like they don’t exist,” she said. Since we’re living in an ever more primitive society, why not embrace it, she said, and act like primitives, but with a purpose. And it was clear from what Natalie was saying that this purpose would certainly include trashing the plush offices of doctors who declared less income that an assembly-line worker.

That night we called it neo-Primitivism. We must have drunk too much to remember that neo-Primitivism already exists (existed) as a movement (it’s as good thing we didn’t waste time putting together a manifesto). And at least twice. First as a post-revolutionary Russian art movement (Malevich and Chagall were proponents), that sought to fuse Futurism and Cubism with Russian folk motifs. And in modern times as a sociological position that argues that with the erosion of modern institutions people are organizing themselves on a tribal basis, where tribe means things like “brand” identity, social networking communities and the like.

But the idea of tribes fascinated me. (It was one of those phone-number-in-my-back-packet ideas).

I thought about the “taste tribes” at Hunch, iconic communities organized around common likes and dislikes. I had read about this website in the paper. It claims to provide targeted recommendations for books, music, DVDs, blogs, even restaurants, classical musicians, and jeans—hundreds of things actually—all on the basis of a “taste profile” it compiles from the responses you give to 20 simple questions. The questions have nothing to do with the books you like to read or the music you usually listen to but instead things like whether you like your sandwich cut down the middle or on the diagonal? Or if  you have a basement in your house.

I thought, come on, this is bullshit. 20 questions and they know who I am? But I figured, it was thought up by a group of young people mostly from MIT and apparently some big players (on-line retailers, booksellers, etc.)  are very interested in it, so I decided to give it a shot.

I answered the 20 questions and it brought me to my “results page” with recommendations for DVD boxed TV series and magazines. It freaked me out — all the recommendations were exactly on target!The magazines Hunch recommended– Economist, New York Review of Books, the New Yorker – are all ones I read more or less regularly, and the TV series suggestions (The Wire, Six Feet Under) were shows I had already raving to friends about. Granted, The Wire has received stellar reviews from practically everywhere, and it could have been a safe choice but it’s not just a matter of popularity I think.  Desperate Housewives is popular but that didn’t come up.  Spooky.

The hitch to Hunch is that you have to give it the right to access your Twitter or Facebook accounts whenever it wants. Natalie didn’t like the idea of a file being started on her. Or was it, another file being started on her? I can’t remember. In a witty play on words in the equivalent Greek expression she calls it being “enveloped”—in the double sense of being surrounded by the watchful eyes of online retailers and surveillance cameras, and the records of your commercial, social and medical transactions all being stuffed inside a large A4 envelope.

I tend to side with Natalie on the privacy issue. I don’t even have a Facebook account. I logged on to Hunch through a Twitter account I have that’s essentially moribund – just a log on name, no followers, no tweets. Yes, It felt like I was cheating, getting something for nothing. To make up for my thievery, I’ve made a practice of clicking the “like” or “dislike” buttons on Hunch when it presents me with recommendations.

The service is a brilliant example of the collective intelligence of the web; the uncanny “taste profile” it builds is a function not only of its amazing algorithms but also of the data it has access to.  And obviously, the more people allow Hunch access to their data, the more intelligent the crowd. But of course the crowd no longer owns its own intelligence, if it ever could have. And I think, if people started sharing their medical histories, workout results (which they already have started to do), food logs (ditto)  online on a massive scale—tens of millions of cases—we’d see unprecedented advances in medical science. Natalie would say, but what if the data wound up in the hands of insurance companies? Frankly, I’m willing to take the chance.

I later realized that of course there aren’t just 20 questions that everyone answers. And if even if they were only twenty, if each question has two answer choices (some have three, but let’s make it simple), that would theoretically make for  1,048,576 combinations of answers (2 to the power of 20) or a million taste profiles. So even if we’re being pigeon-holed, there are a lot of holes to go around.

A friend had asked me what I answered to the question, “will you go out of your way to step on a crunchy leaf?”. But this wasn’t one of the questions that I had answered. And then I realized, like the computer-adaptive GMAT test, Hunch uses a branching algorithm. Each subsequent question is chosen on the basis of your answer to the previous one. So it wasn’t the twenty questions that led Hunch to create such an uncannily on-target taste profile but rather the particular set of twenty questions that were selected just for me. So the set of possible questions and answers is astronomically large. So the taste profile could actually be unique to me!

In the end, it’s more about probabilistic relations than categorizing people. Like people who find department store Santa Clauses creepy are less likely to give their kids names with the same initial. And since a lot of people on Hunch share their likes and dislikes generously, there are a lot of data to correlate.

Hunch always seems to be asking questions. I thought I had answered about 50, but I just checked my profile for the first time and saw that it’s 263. Ok, answering the questions is addicting. They intrigue me. I want to understand what a question like whether I like or don’t like sprinkles on my ice cream could possibly correlate with. Or whether I prefer Plato or Aristotle.  Maybe it’s also addicting because Hunch is so tirelessly interested in you. Whether you think Israelis and Palestinians will reach a peace settlement, which comedians you find funny, if there’s anyone who I’d step in front of a bullet for?  No one is ever that interested in your views. But it’s the kind of questioning that get’s boring fast, because there’s never any follow up.

After answering a couple of sets of questions I checked back on the DVD recommendations and was shocked to find The Simpsons on the list. How did that sneak in there? Maybe because I’d said I don’t drink white wine (What I meant was that I usually drink red wine, but I doubt if Hunch could surmise that). It was right with my favorite soft drink (water), color in clothes (black), and jeans (skinny and straight leg). I don’t read much off the NYT best-seller list, but if I did I would probably read the ones recommended (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Outliers) or had read them (Kitchen Confidential, Freakonomics, though neither would be in my top 20 books of the year). Mixed results for classical music (yes for Glenn Gould and Grieg but Mahler?). Gay vacations were also uneven:  San Francisco and Russian River were rightly there but Berlin should have been first not fifth, and Mykonos should have never made the list. At all.

I imagine I occupy a particular point in Hunch’s vast taste-scape, in a tribe of other users whose profile approximates mine. When I read user reviews of the recommendations Hunch makes, apart from their moniker and tags, I see how closely related they are to me.  Whether they belong to my tribe or not. I still haven’t figured out, though, how I actually go about talking to any of them. It’s nothing like the online gay cruising sites, which in many cases are also very much organized on tribal lines—muscle queens, radical queers, skinheads, bears, twinks, Log Cabin Republicans, rubber fetishists, down to the more tail-end niche triblets like MA1 gearheads and vacuum pumpers.

One of the tasks Natalie had given me that evening was to help her figure out whether Emilios, who unbeknownst to him was at the party as Natalie’s unofficial not-so-blind date, was gay or not. My gaydar picked up just the faintest of blips. He was perfectly groomed and manicured; there wasn’t a stray hair anywhere, and his eyebrows were overly symmetrical for a face with dimensions that often diverged from the golden mean. I sensed he probably owns a clothes brush. Oh, when we confessed to our obsessions that evening, he said his plants. But apart from that, zilch.

Next time I’ll ask him twenty questions.


Image: Brendan Fernandes, New Primitivism 2


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