Taste Space

How can algorithms predict what I don’t know myself?

My algorithms don’t understand me. They remember what I’ve watched on Netflix and make their suggestions, but it’s not quite right. A documentary about competitive swimming? Please, no thank you, but I see what you did there: I do watch documentaries and saw one about cycling and the algorithmic wheels turn in the most unimaginative ways: sports plus doc. They don’t know what really matters to me. “We’re capturing you,” one data scientist told Tom Vanderbilt in his book You May Also Like, “as a location in taste space.” The problem is that my own coordinate in taste space is a mystery to me too. The Apple machines want to remember what I like and build a picture from there (“capture” me, as in a high-stakes game of hunter and hunted) when in fact taste may depend on a peculiar human quirk: the ability to forget.

I once bought a graphic novel (just the one) and now Amazon won’t shut up about it, as if it’s the best thing we ever did together, sending more offers down the pipe, while I’ve moved on. My taste, I think, is not so deliberate: it expresses itself as cognitive accident. Not long ago I discovered that Mosfilm, the Russian film studio that did its best and strangest work during the last decades of the Soviet Union, had posted most of their films on a YouTube channel. I found out through a link on Twitter which caught my eye: a gif of the famous film studio logo, the socialist realist monument of the working man and peasant woman holding tools aloft while the Spasskaya Tower of the Kremlin looms in the near distance in twilight and fog. The mood is of triumph and sadness, as if, in the Mosfilm world, you can never have one without the other. Did I know I wanted to watch these films, many of these films, before tripping on the link? I did not, and yet they wound up taking a weekend of my life.

I once bought a graphic novel (just the one) and now Amazon won’t shut up about it

The films were posted, Mosfilm says, to fight piracy through a colossal act of capitulation: You cannot steal what we give away for free. There may have been a political motivation, as the Putin regime thrives on false nostalgia for Soviet nationalism, which the old movies presumably feed. I have no idea where Mosfilm’s commercial and political imperatives intersect, if at all, but it’s a bad idea to watch Soviet films without the background hum of paranoia. After all, that’s the spirit in which they were made. Some have subtitles, others don’t. Except for the Tarkovsky films, already long popular in the West, I’d never seen any of them before, but had an impulse to binge. I watched them more as objects than as stories, without knowing exactly why.

I like Soviet kitsch. A good algorithm that remembers all and forgets nothing about me might know that I’ve always, since I was a kid, had a soft spot for this stuff, artifacts of a mysterious empire that crept into my world in whispers, through my grandparents who were all closet Communists, one of whom fought in Spain with the International Brigades. One of my great-uncles, a Finn, was a colonel in the Red Army. I never knew him. But I picture a fur hat and a red star. I don’t remember when I first learned the deeper story of the Soviet Union, the gulags and the gun at the back of the head, but it’s enough to say that liking kitsch doesn’t explain what’s going on here: The feeling is more like ambivalence, a dark tug from my past, a reminder of who I might have been as the great-nephew of men who shot poets, but also a Socialist, a Slav, and a sucker for utopian nonsense. So there I was, watching movies from the Brezhnev era.

The 1973 film Ivan Vasilievich Changes Occupation is described in the opening credits as “a non-science fiction, not quite realistic, not strictly historical film.” It involves a hapless engineer who develops a time machine that sends his apartment superintendent and a local petty thief back to the age of Ivan the Terrible, while swapping Ivan the Terrible himself to Moscow in 1973, where the terrorist Tsar has to contend with modern life. The film is the classic fish-out-of-water, identity-switch story in the manner of Freaky Friday and Back to the Future (which it prefigures by 12 years), only with a deeper sense of dread. It sold 60 million tickets in its first Soviet theatrical run. The plot turns on the misplaced Tsar’s worry that he’s been taken from his throne at the moment when the Swedes are about to overrun his kingdom, and the engineer’s worry that his landlord and the thief, now locked in history, will be beheaded. Comic mishaps ensue. There are chase scenes in the style of Benny Hill and the Beatles’ Help.

The film is less important than the images, the detail. The eye looks for clues of a world that no longer exists or, in my case, never did except in the imagination

It can be read as pure slapstick, until you watch with the subtitles off. Free of overwrought dialogue, a theme emerges: The movie is about work, and what happens when all one’s tireless work is negated in an instant, by human error. The ability to temper and deepen comedy with sadness is not solely a Russian trait, but filmmakers of the ’70s were particularly good at it. The Brezhnev era was known as the Era of Stagnation. The Soviets were tired, or at least the leadership was. The ’60s were exhausting: crushing liberal revolt in Czechoslovakia, getting past Kruschev’s cornpone circus and his flirtation with Western economics, trying not to talk about Stalin’s crimes whilst still rounding up the usual suspects who wrote and filmed their parables too explicitly, shooting fewer people but ruining careers and exiling troublemakers where warranted. The ’70s were the hangover, the time for building the dullest, greyest social utopia possible under the circumstances, not unlike what Gerald Ford had in mind for America after Watergate: productive tedium.

I watched dozens more. The Irony Of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath! is a 1976 ensemble rom-com in the vein of The Big Chill (again, well before the fact) in which, at one point, a drunken man takes a shower wearing a winter coat and a fur hat. The film is less important than the images, the detail: What’s on the shelf over the sink in the bathroom? What’s in the giant aerosol can with the red lid — Soviet industrial shaving cream? The eye looks for clues of a world that no longer exists or, in my case, never did except in the imagination. Autumn Marathon from 1979 is a comedy-drama about one man’s midlife crisis which is really about an empire’s end-life crisis: No one understands Andrey Buzykin, not his wife nor his mistress nor his coworkers, not his neighbors, not the friend he jogs with in the kind of black-market Adidas knock-off tracksuit that will become the uniform of the mob oligarchs who will run the country after communism crumbles. The film has a Woody Allen feel without the threat of redemption. Not much happens. There are long spells where no one has anything to say, as if they’re too tired to participate in a movie right now. Exhaustion figures prominently in the Soviet films of the ’70s. No one smiles, and everyone smokes, a lot.

What can an algorithm make of this binge of mine? Presumably it would send me more Russian films to watch, or K-19: The Widowmaker, the horrible movie about the Soviet submarine with Harrison Ford. It remembers what I’ve watched, and memory drives the machine. But it doesn’t understand why I’m drawn to these particular films, because it can’t know what I barely know myself. My taste depends on what I’ve consumed in the past, for sure, but also on what I’ve put out of my mind that still gnaws away at me, subconsciously. This is at the heart of the flaw in AI thinking, according to Hubert Dreyfus at Berkeley in California: Machines know that past events, or interests, can dictate decisions in the present through trial and error and the measurement of best outcomes. Whereas humans, most of the time, do things based not on calculation but something closer to a whim, or instinct, which machines can’t fathom.

Our place in the taste space is dictated by what we may have once knew and pushed aside, where it does its work quietly. Taste, like poetry, comes from hidden corners

In baseball the pitcher throws smoke. He doesn’t think about it. He’s been trained, he’s practiced over and over but at some point the body takes over in ways inexplicable by logic. In fact if he starts thinking about his throwing style it all goes wrong, he throws wild, he’s in a slump. The only way to regain his form is to somehow forget what he knows and get back to sheer instinct. The same applies roughly to human taste, which is also a deeply instinctual phenomenon that depends, only partly, on recalled experience. It depends also on deeply buried ideas that might drive us mad if they were constantly in the front of our minds: trauma, sexual fantasy, taboo thrills, all the deep lizard-brain wiring that’s been consciously forgotten but still lingers, somewhere and somehow. “It would not be enough for a poet to have memories,” said Rilke. “You must also be able to forget them.” Our place in the taste space is dictated by what we can’t immediately know or once knew and pushed aside, where it does its work quietly. Taste, like poetry, comes from hidden corners.

These films work as poetry, if watched without subtitles. In Autumn Marathon I’m fixed not on plot, but on Andrey’s apartment: The mix of a ’70s Soviet idea of modern Western, and pre-war junk furniture that he inherited from his parents and never thought to get rid of. Pickled-wood bookshelves against space-race wallpaper. A painting of a sad clown of the non-ironic kind seen in American motels. Powder blue Bakelite rotary telephones, glass ashtrays the size of dinner plates everywhere. Men’s attire, when not the Adidas knock-off, is the mandatory sports jacket over black turtleneck. Even the stuff in Soviet films from the ’70s is sad. Not pathetic, but sad, in the heart-warming way of objects that try hard but can never succeed at their intended purpose. Like the people in the movies, too.

It must be the sadness I like. But that’s too simple, just like my own Red roots can’t fully explain why I’m binging on Mosfilm except as a starting point. It’s more likely that the sadness is familiar. Something about growing up in the last century (and arguably, in this one) put a value on melancholy as a survival mechanism: Pollyanna joy was suspect and naive, Romanticism was long dead and replaced by paranoia over power and cockeyed economic models and family values. Being a pre-teen in the ’70s, the Era of Stagnation in Russia and, as it happens, everywhere else, was a good time to keep your head down and turn out the lights and wait for something better to happen. It’s possible I’ve been watching these Soviet films not because they’re exotic but because they’re familiar, as if I’ve lived them in some way but have forgotten all about it. The melancholy is nostalgic.

A normal algorithm might take all this and panic, send me Dostoevsky and Nabokov to read (something Russian and sad!), and it wouldn’t be far off. But it would never come up with Rilke or Nathaniel Hawthorne or DVDs of the original Bob Newhart Show, which is comedy about pathological sadness: the screwball patients of a Chicago therapist in the ’70s. A really good algorithm would be able to trace this weird strain of melancholy, which I don’t consciously think much about, through unlikely sources. It might figure out that Hawthorne’s characters, and Ivan Vasilyevich, and Elliot Carlin on The Bob Newhart Show, are somehow heroic about their sadness, facing it and carrying on.

Maybe that’s my taste space. If so, it’s been buried, in a way that the algorithmic machinery, which depends on explicit memory and 2 + 2 = 4 to operate, can’t fathom. An encounter with art is more like turning up in a neighbourhood you know, somehow, but can’t remember ever visiting, and getting a chill when you recognize a house you’ve clearly been in. Taste is not about what I remember explicitly, but that which haunts me.

Tom Jokinen is a Toronto-based writer and author of Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training.