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Inhuman Error

November 29, 2010

Wow, 18 hits yesterday, after a seemingly endless drought in which the average was 2 or 3 – and almost none of them were “misdirects” to “Unfriend Request” or “Body of Knowledge.”  Nothing like a little attention to get you fired up and ready to go.

Speaking of those posts, there was a big article in the Times yesterday about how a thief has been able to exploit Google’s blindness to his benefit.  As I’ve said before, algorithms are tone deaf – they don’t understand that my post sarcastically titled “Unfriend Request” is an extended riff on my distance from the Facebook mindset, with selections from Jaron Lanier’s Harper’s extract (sorry, paywalled) regarding same.  Instead, said post kept getting more and more “popular” because people found it, according to the WordPress stats I check religiously, using search terms like “how do I unfriend someone on Facebook.”  Interestingly enough, traffic on that post has dropped to nearly nothing:


So with the passing of The Social Network and FB in the news, people have lost interest in unfriending, or (which I would suspect if traffic weren’t so low) someone has actually hand-corrected the “inhuman error” in the Matrix to acknowledge that my post has nothing to do with the information desired. 

The Times confirms the tone-deafness of the algorithm, and the story it tells only highlights the failure of the mathematical mindset to solve everything.  TL;DR a woman ordered eyeframes and contacts from a company that turned out to be a scam; not only did he ship her counterfeit frames and tell her to forget about ever getting the contacts, and not only did he physically threaten her after she filed a dispute with her charge card company, and not only did he then “social engineer” a hack of Citibank to make them think she had cancelled the dispute, he even welcomed her negative comments on a consumer website.  (I’ve edited out the name of the company so as not to give it publicity, and you will see why as you read.)

By then, Ms. Rodriguez had learned a lot more about ASDF on Get Satisfaction, an advocacy Web site where consumers vent en masse.

Dozens of people over the last three years, she found, had nearly identical tales about ASDF: a purchase gone wrong, followed by phone calls, e-mails and threats, sometimes lasting for months or years.

Occasionally, the owner of ASDF gave his name to these customers as ASDF, but the consensus at Get Satisfaction was that he and ASDF were the same person. Others dug around a little deeper and decided that both names were fictitious and that the company was actually owned and run by a man named ASDF.

Today, when reading the dozens of comments about ASDF, it is hard to decide which one conveys the most outrage. It is easy, though, to choose the most outrageous. It was written by Mr. ASDF/ASDF/ASDF himself.

“Hello, My name is Stanley with,” the post began. “I just wanted to let you guys know that the more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement.”

It’s all part of a sales strategy, he said. Online chatter about ASDF, even furious online chatter, pushed the site higher in Google search results, which led to greater sales. He closed with a sardonic expression of gratitude: “I never had the amount of traffic I have now since my 1st complaint. I am in heaven.”

In the physics of the Googlaxy, all is math, and since there are no “evil” numbers among its citizens, formulas need not be adjusted because all correct formulas always reach “elegant solutions.” 

A call to Google was returned by a member of its publicity team, who agreed to speak only if his ideas would be paraphrased and not directly quoted. He said that he would send a follow-up e-mail that could be quoted, but that e-mail never arrived.

The spokesman initially sounded skeptical that a company could leverage online criticism against it for a better position in search results. Any search of ASDF— the name of the company alone — yields plenty of alarms.

True, but what about people, like Ms. Rodriguez, who search by using brand names, like “ASDF” and “ASDF”?

A crucial factor in Google search results, the spokesman explained, is the number of links from respected and substantial Web sites. The more links that a site has from big and well-regarded sites, the better its chances of turning up high in a search

Web advocacy sites like Get Satisfaction are vast and score high on Google’s augustness scale. The spokesman surfed the Web as he spoke and said he could see scads of links between and ASDF.  But nearly all of those links, as well as those from other consumer sites, were tales of woe and obscenities.

So, again: Can’t Google separate catcalls from huzzahs?

For competitive reasons, Google won’t disclose whether its algorithm includes “sentiment analysis,” which would give points for praise and subtract for denunciations.

As I near the end of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, I’m struck by this apropos passage in this context.  He talks about his father, a physicist, who marveled that “you can always untie a shoelace just by pulling on one end.”  Crawford notes that unlike the Platonic ideal of the shoelace, real shoelaces may be wet or dirty or hopelessly sticky and the reality of the shoelace "fails" the theory of it.

Modern science adopts an otherworldly ideal of how we come to know nature: through mental constructions that are more intellectually tractable than material reality, and in particular amenable to mathematical representation…Yet the kind of thinking that begins from idealizations such as the frictionless surface and the perfect vacuum sometimes fails us…because it isn’t sufficiently involved with the particulars…mathematics is constructive; every element is fully within one’s view, and subject to deliberate placement.  In a sense, then, a mathematical representation of the world renders the world as something of our own making.  Substituting mathematical strings for shoelaces entails a bit of self-absorption, and skepticism, too:  the world is interesting and intelligible only insofar as we can reproduce it in ideal form, as a projection of ourselves.

By contrast, in diagnosing and fixing things made by others…one is confronted with obscurities, and must remain constantly open to the signs by which they reveal themselves.  This openness is incompatible with self-absorption; to maintain it we have to fight our tendency to get absorbed in snap judgments.  This is easier said than done.

The smooth operator whose name I omitted is a sticky shoelace – he is not “Googly.”  The snap judgment at Google is that as long as the math is right, so is the result. 

We say our goodbyes, and I ask him to sit for a photograph. No, too many psychos out there, he explains. Besides, he doesn’t need his face in the newspaper. What he needs is his company’s name visible for all the world to see — and all the search engines to crawl — in the online version of The New York Times. Along with some keywords, of course.

“Just throw in ‘designer eyeglasses,’ ‘designer eyewear’ and a couple different brand names,” he says, “and I’m all set.”

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