The only way to get good content out of the Internet is by having humans in the loop

Thursday, June 27th, 2019

Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, starts in the near future, where most of the Net has become a Miasma:

I saw someone recently describe social media in its current state as a doomsday machine, and I think that’s not far off. We’ve turned over our perception of what’s real to algorithmically driven systems that are designed not to have humans in the loop, because if humans are in the loop they’re not scalable and if they’re not scalable they can’t make tons and tons of money.

The result is the situation we see today where no one agrees on what factual reality is and everyone is driven in the direction of content that is “more engaging,” which almost always means that it’s more emotional, it’s less factually based, it’s less rational, and kind of destructive from a basic civics standpoint.


I think the only way to get good content out of the internet is by having humans in the loop. The reason that social media systems are architected the way they are, as I mentioned before, is because humans are expensive and you can’t scale that kind of system to serve billions and billions of people. What that kind of implies is that if you did want a curated, edited stream, that you would have to pay for it.

So that means that access to that kind of higher-quality view of the world becomes a class-based situation where people who’ve got the money to pay for or partially pay for human editors and curators are getting higher-quality info, which I think is just a slight kind of magnification or intensification of the way things are now anyway.

(I’ve mentioned before that I have mixed feelings about most of Stephenson’s work.)


  1. Harry Jones says:

    Humans are already in the loop, as consumers. If that isn’t helping, more humans won’t make a difference. People believed false realities long before computers. It’s easy to fool someone who wants to believe.

    It used to bother me that people were wrong about basic facts. Then it occurred to me that I don’t need to work with these people. I can compete with them. Let Darwin sort it all out.

  2. Graham says:

    Harry Jones makes excellent points.

    In addition, reading Stephenson’s passage, I also thought, “Do I agree with his concerns or is this that thing where someone on one side of an argument about values, identity, goals of politics, nature of the state and society, etc., considers his preferences in these areas ‘facts’ and his positions and arguments to represent ‘civility’ as long as the targets are acceptable?”

    I still can’t decide. A bit of both.

  3. Candide III says:

    Humans are already in the loop, as consumers. If that isn’t helping, more humans won’t make a difference.

    This is an easy one: having free generic humans in the loop doesn’t help. Some systems can be made to work with free humans, but they have to put in actual work and/or are parts of organizations or communities where they’re paid in other currencies: status and respect. Nobody respects Facebook like-button pushers or throwaway commenters.

  4. Harry Jones says:

    Generic humans. That sounds elitist. But I have elitist tendencies myself, so…

    The quality of humans in a system certainly does matter. But who gets to decide who’s quality? Who decides the criteria for status and respect?

    If you get status and respect for merely functioning well within a system, then you have a circular argument: the people are virtuous because the system is virtuous because the people are virtuous. And both your status and respect are contingent on the arbiters of merit.

    No mere employee as such can ever have real, objective status or earn real, objective respect. But a free actor? He at least has a chance at earning the real thing, by creating his own system. If his system survives, it will constitute status and earn him respect.

    Don’t short-sell throwaway commenters. A well placed comment can set all sorts of things in motion. And you can’t predict in advance what will go viral. At least I can’t.

  5. Dan Kurt says:

    Stephenson is a SJW.

    ‘nuff said.

  6. Graham says:

    I can’t quite get from earlier comments whether the issue should be how one gets status and respect in a system, or whether and how this current technology is creating genuinely new ways.

    Any social system always handed out most status and respect for doing something within the system. Merely conforming to it to a high level, sometimes also for defending it against enemies, or for leading it to some goal, or being high performing in some approved endeavour. Probably a healthy system should always do these things. If it can’t identify its own idea of worthy goals and reward their performance, it is a dying system.

    And every system, seriously, has mechanisms for both crushing those whose high performance opposes the system and for rewarding them. The categories change and some systems are more flexible than others. But even the most thoroughgoing despotism occasionally rewards the mavericks, including the ones who overthrow the rulers and install themselves. No human system has ever really been closed to some kind of internal realignment.

  7. Kirk says:

    Taking the long view…

    The internet is as big a change as the shift from hand-copied works to mass printed books. Adapting to it is going to take even longer, because the technology of it all keeps improving and changing under us. Gutenberg invented a press that worked, and that didn’t really change in really significant ways for years and years–Rate of print, accuracy, and all that improved, but in tiny increments over a long time, comparatively.

    Now, we’ve got a huge chunk of human knowledge instantly accessible on little chunks of silicon, plastic, and metals living in our pockets. If I took my current phone, a Samsung Note 9 back to 1970, the impression it would make…? Yeah; think about it. Especially if I could stay hooked up to the present-day network…

    We’re only at the dawn of these things, and I would counsel patience. The cultural effect of information access like this is only now being felt–Remember when the only thing you could do, when presented with someone trying to feed you a line of BS was to sit there and accept it? And, now, even sitting on a remote jobsite thirty miles from the nearest regional center town, you can pull up accurate information to refute the BS? Remember how long it took to get answers to questions like “Can I use a 16d nail in this Simpson product instead of the screw the architect specified…?”. Now, you can do stuff that would have required weeks of snail mail going back-and-forth, and do it from the job site as you encounter it. Unprecedented, and really underappreciated. As something that influences daily life, it’s really nice to see people doing their own research instead of relying on word-of-mouth.

    Days are yet young; we don’t know where this is going. I’m thinking the next major inflection point from here is going to be once we start doing direct links into human brains, and seeing where that goes.

  8. Graham says:


    Excellent observations.

    I went to university and grad school just before and at the immediate dawn of public awareness of the internet. It was not in widespread use for much. This would be 1995-6 at the end.

    I remember research in the stacks at libraries, seeking articles in hard copy journals, worrying that even at my large university library something really useful might have to be ordered in, and, especially, that research in journals required finding articles through consultation of multiple large bound volumes of indices that shaped your search by being publications in their own right and having company agreements regarding which indices indexed which journals. Some journals were of course covered in more than one. The academic term for this was “huge pain in the ass”. But we had no better, and it’s still centuries better than being Gandalf consulting heaps of dusty scrolls in the dungeon of some tower in Minas Tirith, so there’s that.

    I also have always had a tendency to come up with random questions on many subjects. I must not have had this tendency so bad when young, or I’d have gone insane at just such challenges as you mention. Or I guess we just adapt to what is possible, and this addiction metastasized when the web made it possible to feed it.

    So the internet has vastly improved my access to information that I actually need, and information that I want for entertainment value, as it has for us all.

    It has probably spoiled me for professional information, but who can argue with that? It has probably also exacerbated my OCD tendency when it comes to random questions or topics popping into my head, to the point of madness, but it also feeds the beast.

    It’s been a net gain of some proportion.

    And yes, it’s still early days. There are still everyday life questions that you can look up, others you can’t find anything, still others you can but the amount of dross or advertising that comes up is prohibitive.

    But even in the Web 2.0 era, there have been specific gains. Food and cooking questions alone, home repair, car maintenance, and everything else that requires specialized skills that are part of normal life but decreasingly taught to all, have benefited from both traditional written advice and YT videos.

  9. Kirk says:

    I’m an information omnivore with a rather extreme addiction to the printed word. I read everything I could get my hands on as a kid, and ran multiple libraries out of material I was interested in. I tried to estimate it, once, as to how many books I’d read by the time I graduated high school, and I am pretty sure that it had to be somewhere just shy of 10,000 books. Most of my childhood, we’d hit the library and check out 25-30 books a week, and I’d read ‘em all before returning them the next week for even more. Lot of fiction, lot of non-fiction, and nearly all the newsmagazines and newspapers I could get my mitts on. Continued that into adult life–At one point, about a third of my Army paycheck was going to keep my information habit fed.

    So, yeah… The internet? That was like putting plumbing into a drug addict’s quarters, with hot and cold running heroin. I have literally started information dives like I used to do in the stacks at the bigger libraries and then looked up to see that ten-twenty hours has gone by while the screen was scrolling.

    I honestly have to reflect that I probably inadvertently rewired my endorphin reward system sometime in late childhood, in such a way that I could not function without a constant stream of information feeding in. I literally cannot tolerate boredom in any way, shape, or form. If you locked me in an empty room, and somehow blocked my ability to imagine things, leaving me with nothing to do in my head…? I’m pretty sure I’d be gnawing at my wrists in short order.

    So, yeah… Internet. Cool beans. Love it. Can’t wait to see what comes next, and hope I’m here to see it.

  10. Harry Jones says:

    From a very young age I sensed that most of my life problems were caused by a lack of knowledge. For me, information was a survival need. The school system just wasn’t teaching me what I needed to know, so I sought elsewhere and everywhere.

    Gradually, I realized that there was an awful lot of false information out there. This was before the Internet. Then I learned about Sturgeon’s Law and I understood why.

    Information is a low grade ore of a precious material: truth. We need to mine it in vast quantities and process it heavily. Make it up on volume.

    This is why I love the Internet, despite it all. It’s the volume.

  11. CVLR says:

    Kirk, do you experience brain fog, low energy, and difficulty concentrating when you dip below 30 or 40 hours weekly?

  12. Kirk says:

    CVLR… No, not really. I just get really really irritable, and unpleasant to be around.

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