A Glitch in the Canyon

Taking cues from the Algorithm

It was only there for a moment, but scrubbing back through YouTube is so simple as to be an inherent part of the viewing process. For a moment, the album cover is in view, and there it is. In The Matrix, the appearance of a black cat, the experience of deja vu, is evidence of being in a simulation; the glitch in the matrix is a short circuit, flubbed data, a sign of the system failing to maintain perfect verisimilitude to real life.

Back up a week. A walk in the park. My interlocutor tells me that Joni Mitchell’s album Ladies of the Canyon has only one good song on it, “The Circle Game.” Not looking for an argument, I just politely note that the album has at least four other excellent songs (“Morning Morgantown,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “For Free,” and, of course, “Woodstock”), and arguably more. Two days later, I bring up the conversation opener with someone else, who says the same. I bring up the other songs, and my second interlocutor is astonished, not having remembered many of them were even on the album. I search and put my cellphone up the screen as evidence: one screen against another screen, to be displayed across town on a third screen. This is not an argument. It is not a debate one wins. One simply opens the window, points to the clear sky, and everyone agrees the sky is clear, no matter what they had thought previously.

And then, today, YouTube recommends I watch a short video about a small apartment in Paris, around 350 square feet. I live in a small home, but by no means that small, and I occasionally watch small home videos to marvel at and even take tips from the organization and design. At 7:10 in the video’s nearly over timeline, I pause and scrub back. Something looks familiar as one of the residents is giving a tour, at that moment of how the home stereo system is secreted behind plain panels. A home this small must have only the essentials. What is true of furniture is true, as well, of books, and of record albums. You see where this is going. And yes, there, briefly in view, is the sliver of an image: the cover of Ladies of the Canyon.

I’ve been rewatching the TV series Person of Interest lately, and doing some writing about artificial intelligence, so these things are on my mind, key among those things: the way a nascent intelligence might make its presence known. I thought I was watching a “small home” video because I’d watched a few in the past. I came to wonder if it had been recommended because of some searches I’d done of a record album nearly a week ago, something then viewable for a second or two, and even then just as a tiny image beneath someone’s arm. I came to wonder if by pausing the video to confirm, I had now further encouraged the Algorithm to send future messages through barely visible snips of relevant cultural artifacts.

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