Machine Learning Times
Machine Learning Times
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2 years ago
Magic Numbers

Originally published in Real Life Mag, May 12, 2022.

Treating “the algorithm” as a kind of divine power misunderstands where algorithmic power comes from.

When TikTok first began to amass media attention, a narrative about its “eerily accurate algorithm” became so popular it was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Users talked about its algorithm as if it were sentient. (“The TikTok Algorithm Knew My Sexuality Better Than I Did” one headline memorably claimed.) In winter 2020, the idea of its omniscience had become so pervasive, it became folded into a particular TikTok genre in which spirit workers — mediums, astrologers, tarot readers, Reiki healers and other “SpiritualTok” creators — make predictions about everything from money and love to politics, government, and the economy. This content, which had risen to prominence amid anxieties about the pandemic, posed the physical realm as one of metaphor and synchronicity, where signs from the universe were waiting to be divined — even on your For You page. “This message was meant to find you,” a TikTok spiritualist would say, or, “Your ancestors guided you to this message.” “If you’re seeing this, it was meant for you.”

Such videos appeared between dances, pranks, and other viral content as if by fate, often purporting to diagnose a personal issue or failing, or offering predictions about love, careers, fortune, and spiritual growth. The easy rhythm of scrolling through the app, combined with content about feeling lonely, scared, anxious, and depressed, made this appeal to the heavens especially tempting. It reflected an anxiety about a precarity many were feeling, whether about the pandemic, politics, or just a general sense of being overwhelmed by an information-saturated world. At the time, it wasn’t rare to to see a tarot reader deliver a message about your romantic partner (“They have been hiding their emotions or juggling two things”) or drag you for exhibiting avoidant tendencies in relationships. A few scrolls over, a Reiki healer might try to relieve you of your anxiety with distance healing, and shortly after, another crafty healer might try to discern your soulmate from a set of runes. (“It’s actually your best friend! I think you already knew that.”)

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