dear algorythm lead image

Dear Facebook Algorithm and Other Summer Musings

THE END OF THE NIGHT CRITTERS: It was a hot July night in the wine country. All of the windows were open. The fan was on high, barely moving the air in the room. I was lying naked on top of the covers, reading a thick book, plodding along on page 375, with another 300 to go. Overhead the lamp was swaying ever so slightly, its glowing shade a friendly presence in the room. 

A photograph of the scene might have been intriguing, but it would have shown nothing—nothing unusual, that is. But my eyes saw it, and as soon as I noticed it, there was no going back. The realization was terrifying.

Something was missing.

There were no bugs, no moths, no flying night critters banging around the light bulb. The air had been sterilized. We were pest free. I panicked. That morning, a neighbor had mentioned that his vegetable garden was only producing leaves—lots and lots of them—but no buds, no berries, no squash, no fruit.

I got up and turned on all the lights, but no visitors came flying in. I paced around looking for spider webs to check whether their larder was empty, but I found no web, not even in the corners of the window seats where they usually set their traps.

Was the world going to disappear without prior notice? Was that it? I went back to bed, the eye of the overhead lamp now the stern gaze of an angry god.

Up early the next morning, still sleepy, I walked down the hall toward the bathroom only to be startled by a giant moth, the size of my hand, fluttering in the morning light, trailing a puff of colored dust from its wings, before disappearing. As I was about to enter the shower room, I noticed the slightest spider thread stretched across my path. I backed away as if it were a live wire. So slender, so fragile, so immaterial. It was a golden thread, a lifeline. 


You lean back in the grass under a grove of poplar trees. A light breeze runs invisible fingers through the canopies. Against the sky, leaves flutter like confetti. Hard as you try, you cannot see the breeze. You twist your mind this way and that, but all you see are trees moving. 

Some of them appear to be waving at you. A young alder gestures in your direction, its paddle-shaped leaves bouncing up and down. You notice an ancient willow swaying absentmindedly, its lower branches stern and world-weary. An elm trembles and quavers, while next to it an acacia stands still, its lacy foliage motionless, as if disapproving of the commotion. Meanwhile, the invisible airflow responsible for all of this remains out of sight. Mischievously, it plays hide-and-seek with your senses.

Attributing human qualities to nonhuman entities is a well-documented cognitive mechanism that helps us visualize abstract concepts. We see faces in the moon, vampires in shadows, advancing armies in cloud formations—and benevolent creatures in swaying trees. This innate anthropomorphic tendency drives scientists crazy. If they could, they’d make it a crime. They believe that ascribing emotions to animals endangers their wellbeing by undermining their rights to be different from humans. 

Scientists and animal rights activists have a point, but, as it turns out, describing natural phenomenon without resorting to metaphors or analogies is practically impossible. It’s just the way our mind works: we don’t perceive the real world directly—we visualize its manifestations through fabricated images.


Dear Algorithm: 

Recently, without my permission, you have been compiling my photos into “memorable moments,” and posting them on my screen when I least expect it— usually when I log on. Deep inside my cellphone, in complete secrecy, you assemble images according to themes with innocuous names like “a summer party,” or “good friends.” 

Nice try. But I am not amused. 

This week you collected photos from a family picnic five years ago. How did you know that my favorite cousin, who hosted the event, had recently died in a car accident? Last week, you posted a girlfriend’s wedding—I had just been on the phone with her the day before offering congratulations on her 10th wedding anniversary. 

Dear Algorithm: Do you really believe that you can become a substitute for my memory simply because you have access to all data concerning me? You know who my friends are, where I live, what I buy, and so on. You remember birthdays and anniversaries. You can figure out when I’ll run out of milk, whom I will vote for, and when is my next gynecologist appointment. You think that it’s just a matter of time before you can take control of my entire life.

How do you plan to handle the erratic nature of the human heart, its contradictions, its passions, its heartaches? To quote Marcel Proust: “The memory of a particular image is but the regret for a particular moment.”

I presume that you are familiar with Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the 7-volume novel that explores in minute details the evocative power of flashbacks. In a famous passage in Book One, Proust recounts how the taste of crumbs from a madeleine (a delicious French confection) triggered a series of momentous recollections. To transcribe his experience, and to share with readers the joy of recovering memories he thought had been lost forever, he launches into lengthy, convoluted, ambiguous sentences, some as long as 800 words.

What’s most amazing about Proust is the sheer number of verbs in his meandering sentences. Embedded in a string of subordinate clauses, they tweak, modify, contradict, emphasize, and enrich what he means to say. His prose is bristling with actions, movements, exertions, retractions, roundabouts.  

Mid-sentence, he is likely to interrupt the narrative with a detailed recipe for linden tea, or a breathless description of the main street of the village where a distant relative lives. A poignant insight about the beauty of a woman asleep might turn into an opportunity to remember every smell inside of an old bakery shop after a rainfall.

Dear Algorithm: Have you thought of exploiting the emotional power of non-sequiturs? Can you use the serendipitous patterns of Proust’s apparently idiosyncratic sentences as a source of true randomness? If you could, you might be able to solve one of the main conundrums of AI: how to teach computers to harness the power of whimsy.

I have one suggestion for you: Read Remembrance of Things Past. Read it in French, while you’re at it. A couple of years ago I downloaded it for free from Project Gutenberg, directly in my itsy-bitsy cellphone. More than one million words, five to six words per line. Proust’s epic sentences—crammed into a rectangle measuring a mere 3.5-inch in diagonal—would sometimes run across, three, four or even five successive swipes.

I often read Remembrance while riding on public transportation. I might travel a couple of miles before reaching the end of a dozen adjunct clauses. Whether on flights to Los Angeles or train commutes to nearby suburbs, I measured distances in reading spells. A series of long stretches of time and space, Proust’s narrative was in no way downsized by the miniaturization of the reading experience.

It took me two years to read it all. Incongruous as it was, the protracted journey within the confines of this tiny digital environment was fraught with joy. It will survive in my memory as one of the highlights of my adult life, on a par with driving my 1956 vintage Ford pickup from New York to San Francisco.

Dear Algorithm: You can probably run through a million words in a matter of hours. What a pity. You will be deprived of the pleasure of cupping between your thumb and fingers a literary masterpiece squeezed into 135 grams of silicon chips tucked inside a glassy shell. Smooth to the touch, my almost weightless cellphone is no larger than Marcel Proust’s celebrated petite madeleine, but it is packed with just as many memories, stored in what is euphemistically described as a cloud.

Dear Algorithm: Please come down to earth where memories have a body and a soul.

All photos by Jeanne Vienne.


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