Machine Thinking for Kids: Save $500 on bread this year -- click here!

Vor zwei Wochen ging ein Text von James Bridle rum: Something is wrong on the internet. Darin beschreibt er ein bislang unerkanntes Youtube-Phänomen, in dem Videos automatisiert nach Suchbegriffen generiert werden und gezielt Kids ansprechen. Die Videos sind natürlich alle voller Hitler und Pisse und Blut und Drogen und die Aufregung war entsprechend groß. Ich hatte das am Rande verfolgt, Tim Pool hat darüber drei recht gut recherchierte Videos gemacht (The Finger Family Epidemic, The Finger Family Apocalypse und Exploitation on Youtube). Die Aufregung ist möglicherweise angebracht, mir aber bereiten Piss-Videos für Kids dennoch nur wenig Sorgen – die wissen ziemlich genau, was Pisse ist.

Ich mache mir mehr Gedanken um einen Aspekt, den Geoff Manaugh in seinem Text The Ghost of Cognition Past, or Thinking Like An Algorithm beschreibt:

I would argue, what’s disturbing here is what the content suggests about how things should be connected. The real risk would seem to be that children exposed to recommendation algorithms at an early age might begin to emulate them cognitively, learning how to think, reason, and associate based on inhuman leaps of machine logic.

Bridle’s inability “to parse out the gap between human and machine” might soon apply not just to these sorts of YouTube videos but to the children who grew up watching them.

I think the more troubling aspect, however, is in how they suggest kids should think. They replace narrative reason with algorithmic recommendation, connecting events and objects in weird, illogical bursts lacking any semblance of internal coherence, where the sudden appearance of something completely irrelevant can nonetheless be explained because of its keyword-search frequency.

Ich wollte das eigentlich gar nicht posten und in einen Linkdump werfen, dann aber postete Jamie Zawinski folgende Story eines Pranks in einer Schulklasse: "Save $500 on bread this year -- click here!" Long story short: Eine Mädchen aus einer siebten Klasse in den USA erfindet einen angeblich „random“ Prank, eine „active, participatory meme“, die tatsächlich überhaupt nicht random ist, sondern einen banaler Werbetext darstellt, der auf irgendeinem Werbebanner stehen könnte, eben jenes „Save $500 on bread this year -- click here!“

Der Einfluss von digitalem Werbesprech auf eine Offline-Meme in einer Schulklasse ist vielleicht schon ein bisschen creepy, aber auch ein bisschen verständlich – immerhin sind wir auch offline ständig von Werbung umgeben. Dann aber mutierte diese Offline-Meme in einen fake-politischen Treueschwur einer realen Gemeinschaft (die Schulklasse), in der alle Kids unkoordiniert gemeinsam aufstanden und mit derselben Geste ihre Treue auf billiges Brot CLICK HERE schworen. (BTW: Hier ein Brot-Shirt).

Und das finde ich dann doch mehr als ein bisschen creepy: „'At what point, exactly, did they do this?' I ask, when I can breathe again after laughing for approximately 20 minutes. 'As soon as I said 'click here',' says Max.“

So, apparently, about a month ago, the tween (who asks to be known to you as Max) decided to start an active, participatory meme amongst the entire seventh grade.
"Save $500 on bread this year -- click here!"

Max, who apparently has unnatural, cult-like leadership qualities, persuaded a core group of friends to whisper this phrase to everyone they saw at school one afternoon. And they complied. All the 40+ 7th graders in her middle school.

How did she come up with this phrase? From the teeming maw of creative chaos that is her brain. It's not a reference to anything. It is purely random. An act of reckless dadaism.

It took about a month for the phrase to achieve complete group saturation. At the end of the month, one of the 7th graders -- Max doesn't know which one -- wrote this phrase down on a piece of paper, and placed it on their math teacher's desk before class one day.

Now, at this point, it's just funny in the normal way. Students decide to confuse their teacher by flaunting an in-joke. Happens all the time, I'm sure. Teachers get used to being mystified by their students.

Max and the other 7th graders come into math class one day, and the teacher puts the note up on the overhead projector.

"Save $500 on bread this year -- click here!"
The children are silent.
The teacher waits. Silence.
He gestures toward the screen. "So...what does this mean?"
The 7th graders burst into laughter.
"No, seriously, one of you needs to explain this," he says.
And the class falls silent. Because... you know. There is no explanation. Except that Max is both random and charismatic and apparently they all do her bidding.

Then.

Then.

Max stands up at her desk. She stands very straight and tall (she demonstrated for me and her mom at the dinner table) and places one hand behind her back.

"Kind of like when you put your hand over your heart for the Pledge of Allegiance," she explains to us.

She then proceeds to read the note from off the overhead projector, in a solemn, declamatory manner.

"SAVE $500 ON BREAD THIS YEAR. CLICK HERE."

And then

then

(and keep in mind, this was, in no way orchestrated in advance)

all the other kids put their hand behind their back.

"At what point, exactly, did they do this?" I ask, when I can breathe again after laughing for approximately 20 minutes.

"As soon as I said 'click here'," says Max.

Hier noch ein längerer Auszug aus Geoff Manaughs Text:

One of my favorite scenes in Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum is when a character named Jacopo Belbo describes different types of people. Everyone in the world, Belbo suggests, is one of only four types: there are “cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics.”

In the context of the present discussion, it is interesting to note that these categories are defined by modes of reasoning. For example, “Fools don’t claim that cats bark,” Belbo explains, “but they talk about cats when everyone else is talking about dogs.” They get their references wrong.

It is Eco’s “lunatic,” however, who offers a particularly interesting character type for us to consider: the lunatic, we read, is “a moron who doesn’t know the ropes. The moron proves his [own] thesis; he has a logic, however twisted it may be. The lunatic, on the other hand, doesn’t concern himself at all with logic; he works by short circuits. For him, everything proves everything else. The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration…”

It might soon be time to suggest a fifth category, something beyond the lunatic, where thinking like an algorithm becomes its own strange form of reasoning, an alien logic gradually accepted as human over two or three generations to come.

Assuming I have read Bridle’s essay correctly—and it is entirely possible I have not—he seems disturbed by the content of these videos. I think the more troubling aspect, however, is in how they suggest kids should think. They replace narrative reason with algorithmic recommendation, connecting events and objects in weird, illogical bursts lacking any semblance of internal coherence, where the sudden appearance of something completely irrelevant can nonetheless be explained because of its keyword-search frequency. Having a conversation with someone who thinks like this […] would be utterly alien, if not logically impossible.