God Loves a Cliché (I Hope)

Becoming Just Another Stereotype, Just as the Algorithm Said I Would

David Zahl / 5.18.21

I’m not sure when Netflix introduced the “Play Something” option, but this past weekend was the first time I used it. It’s surprising they didn’t add the feature earlier. Who hasn’t experienced the paralysis that comes with so many choices, even those that are tailor-made for us?

I clicked the button, and the first video it served up was off the mark — but only a tad. I read the comic of Jupiter’s Legacy and don’t need another deconstruction of superheroes in my life. The second, however, was spot-on. Back to the Future II never disappoints, and the Crispin Glover what-if, instead of detracting, only adds to the fun.

The next morning I logged on to Spotify and was greeted by more recommendations. The algorithm’s been pushing a certain record on me for months, and there’s only so much Morrissey a person can listen to before they lose their mind. So I pressed play on Songs for the Walking Wounded by The Frank and Walters (what a title!), and — ugh — it’s really good. Not too far afield from my Mancunian sweet spot either.

These machines have me pegged, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

We’re living in the age of the algorithm. The Almighty Algorithm determines what we see on social media, what results pop up on our searches, which headlines we see first on various apps. For the sake of convenience we’ve outsourced an uncomfortable proportion of our lives to these codes. Certainly this holds true for someone like me, who (used to) pride himself on something as ineffable as ‘taste.’ Who am I if someone/-thing else is doing the discovering?!

Lost in the hand-wringing over who (if anyone!) is behind the curtain (and what they’re doing to us) is the truth that these algorithms are almost always right. They know us better than we know ourselves. Some program housed in the cloud wields more authority on the topic of my personality than I do. Meghan O’Gieblyn put it this way in her brilliant recent essay, “Know Thyself“:

Algorithms, like the gods of ages past, know us objectively because they see the world in petabytes, from heights we cannot even fathom, and also because they think only in math, which has no opinions (or so it’s believed). But what do they have to say about us? So little of it is revelatory.

This product, the algorithms claim, was purchased by “people like you.” “Since you like dark indie comedies … ”

The contemporary experience of the absurd: to see oneself as the machines do, as a faceless member of a data set, the soul reduced to the crude language of consumer categories. But quarreling with predictive analytics is as futile as arguing with fate. The numbers don’t lie. I did watch those movies.

What she’s saying is that algorithms reveal just how readable (boring?) we are. This rubs against the grain of anyone who’s been raised to value “personal authenticity,” which is basically everyone.

One of the allures of authenticity — as a value — is that it flatters. To be authentically yourself is to be unlike anyone else. Singular, original, unique. You could almost say that a person is inauthentic to the extent that they’re just like everyone else. The more you shed your conformity, or uniformity, the more authentic you become, the more uncontainable.

This is, of course, nonsense. Many of us genuinely like the same things. We find the same jokes funny. We enjoy the same activities. I’m sure some people gravitate toward/away from Bon Jovi’s music because they’re told they should if they want to be a certain kind of person. Still, the hooks are massive, and it’s easy music to enjoy, even if you’re not using it as a prop for your identity.

Uniqueness, on its own, is a faulty measure of self-actualization. But it sure doesn’t feel that way.

Then again, maybe that’s exactly what an algorithm would predict someone of my age, gender, and ‘social position’ would say to feel okay about himself.

Because let’s take it one step further. It’s one thing for an algorithm to know what you’ll like before you like it; it’s another for an algorithm to anticipate the shape of your fears, the location of the potholes you’re likely to step in, the undulations of your very soul.

No one appreciates being reduced to a stereotype, but that’s exactly what’s happening here. And the problem isn’t so much that we’re being flattened but that these flattenings tend to be so damn accurate. I imagine some computer-fied version of the Inside Out gang weighing my data and spewing out the following prophecy:

Guys like you, who enjoy Judd Apatow dramedies and the 80s output of Fleetwood Mac, are likely suffering from quiet alienation and feelings of mid-life entrapment that may erupt at any moment, which they feel vaguely guilty about because they know they’re way too blessed/privileged for that to be a justifiable let alone sympathetic dilemma. In fact, it’s basically the opposite of sympathetic, so maybe keep it to yourself. If you must know, though, guys like you relate profoundly to the Kevin Spacey character in American Beauty (or Foxy in Fantastic Mr Fox) but would never cop to it, not for fear of being unstable but for fear of being a cliché.

What’s more boring than a mid-life crisis?! Other than to the person experiencing it, I mean. Not much. A lot easier to have compassion for more novel issues (and populations).

Translate to your context and perhaps you know what I mean. The woman in her late 40s beside herself with grief over the empty nest. She saw it coming, her friends warned her, she read the applicable books, Amazon pushed ads for all sorts of related products, but here she is, alone in the house, and the feelings are real. Same goes for the recently retired grandfather who feels like he’s lost not only his moorings but also his identity. Or the college student struggling with severe anxiety over the prospect of moving back home with her parents.

What I’m trying to say is that no amount of foresight can inoculate a person against sorrow. If anything, the anticipation just adds an element of shame when the issues finally descend. The ‘Should’s multiply along with their fallout.

Try as we might to assert our authenticity, the things we most share with others have little to do with taste or willpower. The calamities of life follow a familiar path walked by nearly every other human who’s ever lived. On the plus side, this means that all of us, eventually, may prove capable of evincing empathy, compassion, and even grace for our fellow should-have-known-better-and-in-fact-did-know-better sinners.

In the meantime, however, is there any bigger travesty in a culture of authenticity than to be a cliché? We’re told, for example, to “do our thing” and “live our truth.” But what if “our thing” is just what everyone else our age does? What if “our truth” sounds curiously identical to the guy across the street who we’ve been quietly judging for years? This sameness constitutes a transgression against the Authenticity Edict, albeit an alarmingly common, dare I say universal one. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, just not in terribly dissimilar or fresh directions.

It is these moments — when we’re experiencing such easily forecasted problems — that the insufficiency of self-knowledge is laid bare. This is a painful realization, especially for those of us who’ve grown up confident that education and awareness are enough to prevent suffering. Alas, they are not.

Yet that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for clichéd people with clichéd problems.

The apostle Peter was told in no uncertain terms that he would deny Jesus three times when it most mattered. He protested vociferously and then … did exactly that. One denial would have made sense, but three?! There was a point in time when I might have chalked the repetition up to poetic license. No longer. The man sounds recognizably human, his predicament my own.

Maybe the solution to our problems is just as clichéd as the problems themselves. The old chestnut about Christ and him crucified. Could it be that God forgives us not only our sins but their predictability? That was certainly the case with Peter.

Maybe the only authenticity that counts is that of the mercy extended on the cross to those who had acted out their unseen, unflattering script to a tee. The freedom of the Christian, then, might mean more than freedom from oneself. It might also mean freedom from that most damaging cliché of all: that we are loved according to our specialness rather than our shared need.

I suppose that’s the miracle of the divine algorithm. Rather than more of the same, it responds to the user data with a recommendation — an imputation! — of, well, I’ll let The Frank and Walters do the honors: