At this year's Commencement exercises, Head of School Jay Rainey addressed remarks to Randolph graduating seniors for the last time. Famous for once singing Mr. Rodgers' "It's You I Like" to an earlier group of recent graduates, Rainey wasn't planning to sing this time, but popular demand prevailed. His complete remarks follow.
What did the losing candidate in the year 2000 presidential election play on his guitar? An Al-Gore-ithm. An algorithm. I stand by that joke. If you don’t like that joke, I suspect that this unseasonably cool weather is affecting your sense of humor.
We are living in the age of the algorithm – an era of constant and ubiquitous calculations of future outcomes from historical data – our collective acknowledgment of which is a relatively new phenomenon. As recently as 2008, there were zero recorded instances of the term “age of the algorithm” in the 7 million English-language books that Google had scanned up to that point. Fast forward to today, and an internet search for the phrase “age of the algorithm” returns over 5 million results.
That we accept being manipulated by algorithms is unsettling enough. That we embrace and participate in this manipulation is alarming.
But fears of a scripted, algorithmic existence date back at least as far as 1864, when the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, reacting to the growing mechanization and standardization of the human experience, protested in his novella “Notes from Underground”:
“Two times two is four is no longer life, but the beginning of death. Suppose all man ever does is search for this two times two is four. Once he finds it, there will be nothing to search for…. Once you have mathematical certainty, there is nothing left to do or to understand.”
Dostoevsky’s “two times two is four” has become Amazon’s securing a patent to predict what people are going to buy and ship to their door before they even order it. What you want becomes what Amazon’s algorithm says you want. “Two times two is four” has become Google’s prioritization of search results not by accuracy but by popularity – what psychologist Robert Epstein calls the “digital bandwagon effect,” when popularity elevates a search result’s ranking, which increases its popularity, which further elevates its ranking. What you need to know becomes what Google’s algorithm says you need to know. Dostoevsky’s “two times two is four” has become the menu of recommended videos on YouTube or recommended shows or movies on Netflix. What you want to watch becomes what the algorithm says you want to watch.
That we accept being manipulated by algorithms is unsettling enough. That we embrace and participate in this manipulation is alarming. In 2016, Instagram stopped listing photos in reverse chronological order and began to sort them with an algorithm instead. Ever since, a virtual army of experts has been promising to help Instagram users “beat” or “hack” or “outsmart” the algorithm, when all they are really doing is further enslaving them to it. Try to post when your followers are online. Post more videos. Color grade your feeds. Reply to every comment and DM. All of these behaviors will please the algorithm and, in the words of one Instagram “expert,” will “show users what they want to see” – as if users cannot know what they want to see without the algorithm’s assistance. The magic number of Instagram hashtags is nine, by the way. And if you just made a mental note of that, advantage robot.
In the words of one algorithm designer, “Truth is dead. There is only output.”
Not all algorithms are digital. A stereotype is a kind of algorithm. We input a set of observations about a person – gender, hairstyle, skin pigmentation, age, dress, body type, accent – and we output assumptions before we’ve even said “hello.” Identity politics is a similar kind of algorithm. We input a set of demographic characteristics – race, religion, geography, income, sexual orientation, level of education – and we output a capital D or a capital R before we’ve even said “hello.” Too often, we decide that we’re not even going to say “hello.” Or, I should say, the algorithm decides for us. “How dare that person probably, maybe, possibly vote differently than I vote?”
The essential uncomplicatedness of our age of the algorithm blinds us to the true complicatedness of real life. We are sorted and oversimplified, and therefore we sort, and we oversimplify. In the words of one algorithm designer, “Truth is dead. There is only output.”
This is a farewell address, and I have two farewells for you this morning. The first is declarative; the second is imperative. Truth is not dead. Resist the algorithm. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was resisting the algorithm over 150 years ago. “What sort of free will is left,” he asked, “when we come to tabulation and arithmetic, when it will all be a case of two times two is four? I admit that two times two is four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, two times two is five is sometimes a very charming thing too.” Two times two is four is correct, and it can often be true. Two times two is five is incorrect, but it can often be true as well. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man believes in any case that “consciousness is infinitely superior to two times two is four” – infinitely superior, that is, to the algorithm.
Our mission at Randolph commits us first and foremost to seeking truth. I would like to think that “seeking consciousness” describes our work together just as well – understanding truth not simply as an end result, not as an output, but as a way of being in the world that aspires to something more than an algorithm can give. Our mission is not “seeking correctness” or “seeking accuracy.” It is “seeking truth."
Resist the algorithm. Seek the truth. Maintain consciousness.
I will close this farewell with two little stories about Paul Simon, one of the most gifted songwriters in American history. He told a group of students at New York University in 1970 that the first time he met Bob Dylan, whom he idolized, he was invited to Dylan’s house and found it to be a complete mess, with junk strewn all around and scraps of paper littering the floor. Dylan kept walking around, talking and thinking out loud, and Simon followed him, picking up every loose scrap of paper he could find – anything with words on it – and stuffing it in his pockets. He was dying to figure out how Dylan did it, but of course there is no algorithm for writing songs – not true songs. Those scraps of paper were “two times two is four” inputs in a “two times two is five” artistic process. Garbage in, garbage out. Simon could never put them to use.
The second story comes from Melissa Manchester, herself a songwriter who was one of Simon’s NYU students that year. “I remember,” she says, “somebody asked him the first day, ‘Paul, how does one write a song?’ And he said, ‘Oh? What makes you want to write a song?’” “How do you write a song?” is an algorithm question. Algorithms operate in the domains of “what” and “how.” “Why do you want to write a song?” is a truth and consciousness question. Truth and consciousness operate in the domain of “why.”
You have been beloved here and are beloved still. Now go make your music.
At the senior breakfast, Andrew Beckman gave you excellent counsel: “Don’t be passive, or life will sweep you along. You have control.” This morning, I offer you the same counsel in different words, the same song in a different key. I sing to you without singing this morning.**
Resist the algorithm. Seek the truth. Maintain consciousness. We graduate you today, but you are far more than output. You are true, and you are beautiful.
I leave you with Paul Simon’s question: What makes you want to write a song? Socrates advises us that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” What makes you want to write a song? You have been beloved here and are beloved still. Now go make your music. Congratulations to the Class of 2019!
(** At this point, cries of "Sing!" rang out in the audience, and Rainey obliged by singing the few lines he said he could remember from Paul Simon’s lullaby, “St. Judy’s Comet.”)