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Mathematically Eliminated (and Included)

This isn’t easy, but it needs to be said.


I have a problem. It’s not easy to admit it, and frankly, I’m not sure what I’m going to do about it. On one hand, it seems like it came out of nowhere. But if I’m honest with myself, it’s probably been going on for a long time, brewing and building slowly behind the scenes. And all I’ve been doing through my denial and weakness is stoking its flames. But Saturday, I finally came to grips with it as I fired up a documentary about algorithms.


That’s right … algorithms.


But let’s be clear, algorithms aren’t my problem per se. My problem is video streaming services which have given me the ability to watch movies, shows and documentaries instantly, anywhere.


And I realized that over the past couple of years, I’ve let myself go so far down the “instant view” rabbit hole that I’ve resorted to watching programs about things I never would have watched in a “pre-streaming” world: things like algorithms.


It’s no crime to watch Netflix or any of its siblings, and most people can do it without developing a problem. But as these services have evolved, offering thousands of programs available at the click of our remote or mouse, I’ve immersed myself in everything from classic movies to TV shows, documentaries and concert videos. I’ve dabbled in British humor, binge watched old sitcoms. I’ve “Broken Bad,” consumed Food, Inc. and gone into the studio with everyone from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to the The Wrecking Crew and Ginger Baker.


I’ve watched every movie Netflix offers featuring the likes of Paul Newman, Sidney Portier and Christian Bale. I’ve “Columboed” and I’m an admitted “Rockfordfile.”


But rock bottom for me? It happened Saturday afternoon. I was looking for a fix, but there was no good stuff available. I searched and snooped and asked around (using the Netflix search engine … ironically, an algorithm).




Then, I stumbled upon it. It was only 58 minutes long, and most days, I’d have no interest. But when you’re desperate, you’ll talk yourself into anything. (It’s like pretzels. They’re nothing special, but if they’re the only snack food available at the time, they’re not so bad.)


It was a tough decision; one I didn’t take lightly. I hovered over the selection before clicking, my thoughts racing:


“This show is going to piss me off because it will reveal my complete and utter ignorance about things.”


“I don’t even like math … do I?”


“This is going to be BORRRRRINNNGGGGG!”


“Close the computer and walk away … WALK … AWAY!”


But then the other voice – the one I usually listen to – made some good points:


“Algorithms are important … I’m pretty sure anyway.”


“Since I really don’t know what they are, don’t I owe it to myself—and to society—to learn about them?”


“What the hell, it’s only 58 minutes, right?”


So, after much soul-searching, and probably arriving at the precipice of a productive step toward climbing out of my streaming addiction, I dove back into that deep, dark well to learn about, of all things, math.


Luckily, early in the program, the on-camera host (whose British accent made him seem even more intelligent than his credentials would reveal), defined the term “algorithm, and it went something like this:


“In mathematics and computer science, an algorithm is a step-by-step set of operations. Algorithms perform calculations, data processing, and automated reasoning tasks.”


Huh? OK, I’m relatively intelligent. I mean, I at least know not to put my hand on the burner of hot stove most of the time. But what they hell does that mean?


If you’re a math person, you’re screaming at your computer right now, but only because you can’t scream at me in person. I get that. What I don’t get is … algorithms.


I mean, I get that they’re like recipes that make things work or behave in a certain way, but I just don’t get how people figure out the recipes that, well, make things work or behave in a certain way.


So, a few minutes into this documentary, I decided to go to a second source to get some clarification before diving into the subject.


I watched a five-minute video from Khan Academy about algorithms (OK, I watched 2:17 of the video before I was so bored and confused that I had to stop), and I must say, it didn’t help much. I mean, I know an algorithm is a set of steps, but it seems like there are lots of ways to set up those steps, and it seemed like the people who wrote and produced the video used algorithms and artificial intelligence instead of real words to help me understand all this.


(I think maybe it was a ploy to weed out those who shouldn’t have access to such critical knowledge … namely, me.)


So, I returned to the documentary, committed to learning about this stuff and how mathematical equations are doing everything from helping us figure out where we’re going, to identifying faces on our phones’ cameras to determining what new websites we should visit based on all the old sites we’ve been visiting (because if one thing we ALL need is more useless stuff to look at on the Internet).


After watching this program (and learning quite a bit), I have four takeaways:

1.     Algorithms are important.

2.     They give me the heebie geebies, mostly because they’re math-based, and lots of math gives me the heebies.

3.     I’m possibly more confused about—or by—algorithms than I was before I watched the show.

4.     I’m probably being manipulated by an algorithm at this moment.


OK, I have one more takeaway, or maybe just an observation. I think a lot of these solutions or equations or recipes or whatever name we can use besides “algorithm” (which is a completely awkward word, or an awk”word,” see what I did there?), while making life convenient for us, are also making us a dumber and lazier. (Sounds kind of like my experience with Netflix, doesn’t it?)


I mean, consider this: what was the algorithm Lewis and Clark used to find their way to wherever the hell they went … oh, AND FIND THEIR WAY BACK?


It was Sacagawea. And I’m pretty sure she didn’t have a SmartPhone full of algorithms to guide that crew. That was all just critical thinking, memory, instinct and frankly, I don’t know what else, but I do know it’s stuffed their brains could do that ours can’t, or won’t, or at least don’t because algorithms are doing it for us. (Granted, someone’s huge brain has to come up with the algorithms, but what does that do for the rest of us cerebral “commoners”?)


I never took a class that even used the word “algorithm” much less defined them or showed me how to create them, yet just like our eyes blink, we inhale and exhale and our blood flows freely (hopefully) through our bodies, algorithms are always working on us, in the background, without any real effort on our part.


I’m not saying they’re bad. They’re not. They’re also not good. They’re just … algorithms. And yes, they help us figure out things quicker, and guide us (without our knowledge) toward certain things. But let me ask you this: do we ALWAYS need something or someone to help us figure out stuff quicker?


I’ll admit, if there’s a Bengal Tiger bearing down on me, and he/she is, say, 50 feet away and coming hard, and I have an app that has an algorithm that can give me the solution for not being killed, I’m all for it. (Though I must say, there aren’t—and probably shouldn’t be—many situations where I’d be within 50 feet of a charging Bengal Tiger, and if I am, I’m probably in THEIR house and not my own, so that’s my fault.)


That said, do I need algorithms to figure out everything for me, just to make my life is easier? Doesn’t that end up leading to computers or machines or robots taking over the world? Do we want that?


Oh, sorry. We already have that.


I watched The Jetsons—not on Netflix, but back in the day and on an RCA 26-inch standard-definition TV—and while I thought it was cool that someday we might have flying cars and eat our food in tablet form and have cool spaceship homes with conveyor belts to transport us from room to room, I was a little leery of Rosie, the robot maid. (I’m sure Rosie was driven by algorithms, but they never discussed that in the documentary, which would have made it much more interesting for me.)


Anyway, that’s not the point of this piece. The point is, I have a problem, and it has led me down the deep, dark tunnels of watching programs that I have little to no interest in. And the cruel reality of that is, it was an algorithm that decided to put that documentary about algorithms in my suggested watch list.


What has this world come to? What have I come to?


I need help.


© 2024 David R. Haznaw

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