A Blog by Jonathan Low


Nov 27, 2017

You Can't Always Trust An Algorithm

And no, humans aren't perfect either. JL

Maris Kreizman comments in the New York Times:

The internet is supposed to make it easier for us to find people and places and perfect gifts, and more profitable for companies that offer those services. And yet here I am, with my too-old dog and my too-young husband and happier than I could have predicted. The best things in life are unquantifiable.
Years ago I interviewed to be a book editor at a data-centric company that made me sign a nondisclosure agreement, so I won’t tell you where (but you can guess). I was asked what kind of data I’d use to determine whether a book was worth publishing. I said that I’d look at the author’s previous sales figures and social media presence and what comparable titles had sold. But even when it would have suited me to lie, I had to be honest: Picking a great book is about going with your gut. It’s all in the read.
I didn’t get the job.
The best things in life are unquantifiable. No sentiment could be more distressing around the holiday season, when we rely on algorithms to guide us toward memorable gifts for our family and friends. The “if you like this, you might also like this” approach is comforting to those of us who are risk averse, like publishing executives and people like me. In my reading life, I know the greatest rewards come when I forget some preconceived notion of what I like and just get lost in a great story. And yet in just about every aspect of my life I seek order and safety.
Picture me on Tinder circa 2014. My photos are selfies in front of bookcases, because I know exactly who I am and what I want potential suitors to know about me. I list all of my favorite authors, because the right kind of person could look at my Margaret Atwood and Lorrie Moore and Zadie Smith and W. Somerset Maugham and see into my core. But for all my self-confidence, I’m not quite sure what I’m looking for.
Here are my search criteria: I’m looking for men in my area (no farther than three miles away, because traveling is such a hassle and I take too many cabs as it is) who are anywhere from two years younger than me up to 10 years older (going on the assumption that women mature more quickly than men). And for goodness’ sake, my friends would tell me, find a man who isn’t a writer — they’re way too emotionally unstable. Certainly if I could check most of those items off the checklist, I’d find love or some good enough approximation of it.
How did it go? I was absolutely miserable dating appropriate-age marketing associates who lived near me. I always wanted to be at home reading instead. But I did find a weird joy in debating hypotheticals with myself: Could I date a vegan? I guess, if pressed. Could I date someone shorter than I am? I’m only 5-foot-2, but sure. Could I date a David Foster Wallace fan? Yes. Again and again, yes. Could I date someone with extremely different politics? Definitely not. I kept making trade-offs with myself about the men whose photos and short bios scrolled by, and I yearned to be flexible and nonjudgmental. Sure. As anyone who has ever used a dating app can tell you, that’s easier said than done.
Then one night I held a reading with some authors I admire at a bookstore, and I threw an after-party at my favorite dive bar. In walked a friend of a friend who I sort of knew from the internet but who I’d never met in real life. He is six years younger than I am (way too young for me) and he lived in Harlem (that’s a $40 cab fare from my home in Brooklyn) and he’s a writer/comedian (warning flags coming at me from every direction). But we talked and he charmed me. He was online dating, too, but I never would’ve found him on an app. He wasn’t on my metaphorical vision board, but he fit into my real life in ways I never could’ve imagined. He’s my husband now. (He likes David Foster Wallace.)
In 2015 I packed up all of my books and we moved in together — we used StreetEasy to find an apartment that was totally mediocre, but we were happy enough there. Once we settled in, we began looking to adopt a dog. I still didn’t realize that algorithms were not as helpful as I wanted them to be.
I checked Petfinder constantly, the way I once scrolled obsessively through Tinder. Here, my criteria were much less intensive: I was just looking for a puppy or a young rescue dog that was apartment-size, healthy and sweet. I filled out a dozen applications, but we didn’t have much luck. Eventually I managed to schedule a 90-minute phone call with a volunteer at a shelter that specialized in brachycephalic (smooshy-faced) breeds.
Two days before that grilling, we heard that a friend of a friend was taking care of a dog whose owner had to go into assisted living and the pup was now looking for a new permanent home. We asked if we could meet. In walked Bizzy, an 8-year-old goddess of a pug, with a lovely disposition and just the right amount of sass. It was triple love at first sight. She’s now living out her golden years with us, snorting with glee when she eats turkey and purring like a cat when she gets good belly rubs. We never would have found her on Petfinder; she wasn’t even listed.
The internet is supposed to make it easier for us to find people and places and perfect gifts, and more profitable for companies that offer those services. And yet here I am, with my too-old dog and my too-young husband and my ever-growing book collection, happier than I could have predicted.
It’s risky not to have data, to be without numbers you can plug in when you’re looking for something or someone to love. We think we know exactly what we want. But I hope that our guts remain true to our hearts, and in this world measured by clicks and stars and highest customer reviews, we remember that some rules are made to be broken in the most delightful of ways.


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