An Endlessly Upward World
On learning to speak the algorithm
I. A Review
I would rate my garbage can 3.5 out of 5 stars. It’s a pretty good garbage can – more expensive than the last one we had, metal instead of plastic. Also the pedal for the lid works, which was not the case for its predecessor. It doesn’t slam, either. It’s slam-proof. Smooth.
There are aspects of the experience of using the trash can that are not quite 5 stars, which are probably polluting the purity of my rating of the object itself. Our kitchen is very small, and the trash can has to stand between the refrigerator and the butcher block we brought in to try to maximize counter space. There’s room for it but not quite enough room – sometimes you hit the pedal and the lid catches on the side of the butcher block on its way down and sticks, and you only realize when you come into the kitchen twenty minutes later and smell garbage. I experience a flash of irritation every time I have to stand and wait for the lid to make its way, with a quarter-centimeter of clearance, past the hazard. I spent sixty bucks on a garbage can I have to babysit, I think to myself in my father’s voice. Why can’t anything just work?
This is not the trash can’s fault. I know I’m taking out the limitations of my environment on the trash can.
The trash can’s shiny metal is very attractive. It looks less grungy than the brown plastic of our previous trash can. Something about it says I am not just clean, but sterile. …Except that that lasted its first day in our kitchen, after which it began to show the marks of kitchen existence. Fingerprints all over the lid, because our last, broken trash can ingrained in us the habit of never using the pedal. Splashes and smears of water and cooking liquid. A smudge on the side where it keeps rubbing up against that damn butcher block. Stainless steel only stays stainless if you clean it with dedicated stainless steel cleaner. There is something undignified, to me, about polishing a trash can with dedicated products; something in the chore that makes me feel I have become someone strange and persnickety. I wipe it with Windex once a week and try to pretend I am not the kind of person who feels disappointed about the fingerprints that remain.
But the trash can closes smoothly, when physically possible. Odors don’t cling to it. We use fewer trash bags now. We feel satisfied to have moved beyond the stage of life where we drag a ten-dollar broken plastic object from Wal-Mart between tenancies, to have emerged into the part of adulthood where you decide buying a trash can that works as intended, instead of one that works well enough, is an act that justifies itself.
So: Fairly or not, I give my trash can 3.5 out of 5 stars.
You can write a 5-star review about literally anything.
It’s fun! You get to take your completely subjective opinion of something and defend it as though it’s objective. It feels a little goofy and a little smart and a little winkingly presumptuous—you know you don’t actually have objective criteria, but you get to invent them. What if I applied the same rules to my flat-screen TV and the Horsehead Nebula? What if I talked about the particular smell of airports the same way I talk about my customer service experience at the Panda Express? If the gut feeling behind the chosen criteria is sufficiently relatable, you can get away with a bigger conceptual stretch; if the object has some metaphoric resonance, the review becomes a little piece of memoir.
John Green elevated the form to an art in his recent memoir/book of essays The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet, in which he reviews on a five-star scale, among many other things, the QWERTY keyboard, the Taco Bell breakfast menu, Canada geese, and viral meningitis. Green explains:
“The five-star scale has only been used in critical analysis for the past few decades. While it was occasionally applied to film criticism as early as the 1950s, the five-star scale wasn’t used to rate hotels until 1979, and it wasn’t widely used to rate books until Amazon introduced user reviews. The five-star scale doesn’t really exist for humans. It exists for data aggregation systems, which is why it did not become standard until the Internet era. Making conclusions about a book’s quality from a 175-word review is hard work for artificial intelligences, whereas star ratings are ideal for them.”
We are not artificial intelligences, but something about that 5-star interval just works with our minds. We adopted the scale without questioning it, folded it neatly into the emotional dialect of Online and moved on without noticing the rearrangement. Green’s point has stuck with me: That a widget some programmer added to an online shop at the turn of the century has become quietly ubiquitous, a language in which we all communicate yet never consciously learned to speak.
And I hate it.
II. Three Stories
Recently, my parents were traveling in Michigan with an old friend—a priest in his 80s, a Jesuit mentor of my father’s from his graduate school days. My parents took him out to Detroit. He has trouble walking these days but still loves being out in the city.
It was early spring in the Midwest. The roads were a sea of ice that melted all day and re-froze at night. That evening, on their way back to the convalescent home where he lives, their car went facefirst into a snowbank sitting in a freezing puddle. The water was up past the bottom of the front doors; there was no way to back out and no way to get the elderly priest out of the passenger seat. The temperature was dropping below 0 Fahrenheit. They piled him with coats and ran the heat in intervals to avoid draining the battery. They waited for three hours while friends in town called around, searching for a tow company willing to come out so late at night on such bad roads, and, once there, to take on the liability risk of towing a car with a person still in it.
In the end, they found one: A man and his wife who owned their own tow truck. “We’ve got an elderly priest in the car and he can’t get out” was enough for them. They agreed to tow the car without risking moving him.
As the rescued car warmed up, my parents thanked the couple and promised to tip them extravagantly for the trouble. The tow truck driver’s wife handed them her card.
“Please,” she said. “It’s no trouble. Just make sure you leave us a 5-star review.”
When my wife and I lived in Chicago, we ate a lot of takeout. We had our favorite spots in the neighborhood, but every so often we’d try something new.
I don’t remember the details of this particular evening. I know we were very hungry, at that point where everybody in the house is getting cranky and indecisive. We ordered Thai food through GrubHub.
The food took an hour and a half to show up. When it arrived, it was cold, awful quality, and not even our order. There was no option for a refund. We spent another dinner’s worth of money on pizza, and I left the business a 2-star review on Yelp. (1 star felt too mean, somehow. I didn’t want the proprietors to think I hated them personally, or something.)
Five minutes after the review went up, my phone started blowing up. A string of texts from several unfamiliar numbers, and then a phone call.
It was the owner of the restaurant. And several of his family members. They had my phone number through GrubHub. They wanted to know what they could do to get me to take the 2-star review down. They begged me to take it down. They asked if I wanted a free meal? More free meals? Would I at least post a better review saying they’d tried to make it right, that they’d offered me this free food? “Please. This is my business,” the owner begged me in heavily-accented English.
Chicago’s a tough town for restaurants. A town whose 3-star rating is another place’s 5-star rating, so to speak. You walk through any neighborhood, particularly one that has or recently had a significant immigrant population, and any given hole-in-the-wall will be a cut above average. This guy was competing in a market where the difference between 4.2 and 4.3 stars on Yelp represented a gain or loss of real dollars, with which he fed his own family.
I didn’t take down the review or accept any free food. At the time I told myself it was only my opinion, after all, and if a restaurant owner couldn’t handle a 2-star review for bad service he was in the wrong industry. Something in me felt I’d been intruded upon – I hadn’t even called the restaurant! I’d gone through a middleman. I’d been made to feel like I was stealing bread out of the mouths of children for the crime of thinking food I’d paid money for wasn’t very good. If you hate bad reviews so much, have you tried just making better food, mister head-of-an-immigrant-household-in-a-not-wealthy-part-of-a-huge-American-city?
But it left a bad taste in my mouth that has never quite faded. I haven’t given a negative review to a restaurant since. I’ve come to the conclusion that in a world where everybody is, in varying ways, just trying to feed their families, better to mind my own business.
My mom loves leaving 5-star reviews. It’s part of her post-vacation ritual – she opens her laptop, sits on her couch under a blanket, and goes methodically through every day of the vacation, looking for good reviews to leave. Getting to be present for the running commentary is a treat.
“That VRBO was just perfect,” she’ll say, typing. “I’m going to mention that hanging chair they had. And that couch was so comfortable. They took such good care of the place.” A few minutes later: “Ohhhh, do you remember that… what was it. That crab-crusted halibut. At the place downtown. I need to make sure to mention that. What did you eat? It was good too, right?”
She has great taste, a kind heart, and a sense of duty about this. On our most recent vacation together, we went to one good and one mediocre winery. She gave the good winery a 5-star review. For the other, she considered leaving a 3-star review praising the nice grounds and good service, but pointedly not mentioning the wine. In the end, she decided not to review it at all. “I think that says enough,” she said. There are no 3-star reviews on a 5-star vacation.
The glowing 5-star review my parents left for the tow company is not the only one on their Google page describing a situation where the couple came to the rescue when no other tow truck drivers would. The reviews show that they’re trustworthy, good businesspeople, a community go-to in an emergency. The feeling of relief when the tow driver says “I’ll be there in thirty minutes,” when you’ve called five other places and gotten only voicemail, while the ice solidifies around the hubcaps and your kids shiver in the back seat—that’s a 5-star feeling.
The feeling of sipping an excellent pinot noir on a sunlit patio on a cool spring day, four days into the longest break from life you’ve had in years with someone you wish you got to see more often—that’s a 5-star feeling, too. And the feeling of being hungry after a long day at work, with a mediocre pizza on the way and a bag full of takeout in the trash, two months into your first brutal winter in a place where the sun goes down at 3 pm and nothing else has gone as you’d planned, that’s a 2-star feeling.
You can do this with literally anything.
III. A Book Review
Last year I read José Luis Zárate’s novella The Route of Ice and Salt, originally published in Mexico in 1998 and re-published by Innsmouth Free Press in 2021 (trans. David Bowles). It’s not hard to see why it should be revived now – it’s a riff on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, told in the form of diary entries written by the unfortunate captain of the Demeter, the ship that carries the vampire to England. The twist is that the captain is gay. A classic fixture of public-domain pop culture inspiration in an era of endless remakes, plus a topical reflection on the experience of an Oppressed Identity – it was destined to sell.
It’s a florid, creepy, claustrophobic little book, written in a dreamy, stream-of-consciousness style that becomes stranger and more oblique as the story goes on. The basic facts are explained by the author in the introduction to orient those who aren’t familiar: In Dracula, the ship Demeter came into port on a foggy night empty of its crew, with the dead body of its captain tied to the wheel, a rosary in his hands, and the hold full of boxes of earth. Zárate imagines the captain as a deeply repressed gay man, tortured by his desire for the men of his crew, haunted by dreams and waking fantasies of seducing them, sexually overpowering them, being ravished by punishing groups of them. They are, for the most part, not tender, romantic fantasies – they are devouring obsessions. The dreaminess of the prose contrasts with the blunt, brutal physicality of the captain’s desires. He is wracked by shame, bound by an iron-clad determination never to become the predator he believes he is, living out an eternal cycle of longing and self-punishment with every voyage and every new crew he takes on.
I admit to finding a lot of LGBT+ fiction published nowadays to be… a little toothless. A backlash against a perceived trend of unhappy endings for gay characters, combined with a backlash against the stereotype of gay people as corrupting sexual influences on The Youth, has given us a strangely sexless world of mainstream queer literature. The girls sometimes kiss but never seem to fuck. The shy, sad young men have sizzling romantic chemistry but never admit any sexual feeling outside the world of their soulmate monogamy. There is no promiscuity, no taboo, nothing uncontrollable in this vision of queer desire. It gives lip service to the idea of transgression but permits only worlds where queer desire does not transgress. The metaphor of vampiric bloodlust for forbidden desire has been done to death, but I’m often left disappointed by the lack of actual monstrosity in fictional approaches to the idea.1
Zárate is not coy on this score. Stoker’s vampire is canonically sexually terrifying. In Zárate’s text the monster transforms himself into a seething mass of rats and a curdling wreath of fog, creeps into the beds of the crew in the night and destroys them mouth-to-skin—pressing its body against theirs and sucking out their free will through their throats with real, physical lips. What’s the point, then, of being subtle about the captain’s fantasies, which also involve predatory encroachment, physical domination, moral corruption, sucking? Zárate goes all in, painting the monster and the captain as something like romantic rivals for the heart of the ship and its crew—equally thirsty, equally consumed, equally poised to consume.
Spoiler alert: The ultimate conclusion is not that the captain overcomes his vile, base desire and finds true, un-monstrous love; it is not that he is ever seen and understood by a being other than the monster. It is that the captain’s hunger can find expression in love, secret and miserable though it might be, where the monster’s can’t. It has the power to redeem where the monster’s can only damn. When the captain makes his final stand, bound to the wheel with a rosary, his body in its sacrifice the only one on the ship off-limits to the monster, the catharsis is well-earned. I felt a deep intimacy with the captain, knowing that no one at his destination would understand the battle he had fought. I felt that in understanding him, I had been given some power to forgive him.
The book has an average of 3.8 stars on Goodreads – 247 written reviews, and 664 ratings. Confession: I find Goodreads reviews absolutely fascinating as, like, a cultural artifact. For example: Many of the reviews, good and bad, start with a list of the marginalized groups represented in the book (“gay man”) and a list of content warnings. One 4-star review is only a list of content warnings: “Descriptions of death and murder, references to cannibalism, sexual assault, allusions to predatory sexual behavior, outdated racial epithets (Romani slurs), graphic descriptions of sex and sexual fantasies, some blood and violence.” Pretty solid summary! Glad they liked it!
On Goodreads, liking or not liking a book is often a moral act. Stars are docked for objectionable subject matter even in a book that the reviewer enjoyed. Common to lower-starred reviews of The Route of Ice and Salt is the complaint that it is too sexual: “If you power through the initial 22 chapters where the narrator talks about erections and such,” says one 2-star review, “this is an okay book about Dracula terrifying a ship.” Similarly common is the complaint that it is sexual in the wrong way: “everything the captain does and thinks just made me feel like the author was a homophobic dude who thinks gay men are fucked up depraved disgusting hornmonsters…. If he thinks the shit he wrote in this book is relatable in any way I feel like he genuinely should be getting help from a clinical therapist,” says another reviewer (who notes at the beginning of her review that “I thought it was going to be like sexy gay vampire shit but it… was not that”).
There are ambiguous reviews, too. One 3-star review praises the book’s beauty but confesses that “[i]t was hard for me to read some of the captain’s innermost thoughts. A lot of his desires struck me as borderline predatory and made me feel uncomfortable…This is a book that I would like to re-read in the future, especially at a different point in my life. I feel like one needs to work with it in order to get its full message across.”
I’m struck by that 3-star compromise. The struggle it represents. It says: This moved me in a way I cannot now quantify, but I have no option not to quantify it.
Over all the reviews, at the top of the page, Goodreads offers an objective measure of the feelings of the book’s audience: 3.8 stars. Not bad, I guess. From one way of looking at it, that means this 1990s work of Mexican queer speculative fiction in translation is 0.3 stars better than my trash can with the sticky lid.
IV. Gold Stars and Black Dots
During the pandemic, I watched almost everybody in the city switch seamlessly to an all-delivery lifestyle. Dinner from Postmates, groceries from Instacart, and everything else that could possibly exist from Amazon Prime. Delivery apps let you leave instructions you usually can’t give the postman – where precisely to leave the goods, for example, and what medium to use to contact you to announce it’s been delivered.
Every app used to mediate human interaction has a built-in 5-star scale, used to aggregate opinions about whether the human being rated has provided the precise level of human interaction expected. If a Postmates driver was instructed to knock and leave the food on the doorstep but instead waited, food in hand, for you to open the door, there is a 5-star scale that takes that failure into account. If they called instead of texted—what year is it?—you can mention that in their performance review. You can rate your Uber driver higher for providing you a pleasant surprise, like a phone charger or a water bottle, or dock points for talking too much when you expected silence. You can’t meaningfully rate the Safeway on a 5-star scale, but you can rate the Instacart driver who brought you two individual brussels sprouts instead of the two pounds of brussels sprouts you asked for.
In this way, the 5-star scale offers predictability, that greatest promise of modern consumerism, in the eternally, problematically unpredictable realm of human interaction. We are guaranteed the precise amount of everything we asked for—maybe sometimes a little more, but never less. With people as with books and wineries and trash cans, we are offered the promise that the product will conform to its rating, that the interaction will be better-than-neutral, that the transaction will be seamless.
Already algorithms have learned how to present to us what they expect we’ll rate favorably before we even ask for it, based on our previous ratings. We drop stars behind us in a bread-crumb trail that leads to a perfect list of our preferences. Why should corporations bother replacing service workers with machines when human beings have the capacity to teach themselves the corporate criteria for a 5-star interaction? To translate experience into algorithmic language that incentivizes algorithmically friendly behavior?
The 5-star scale is a benevolent tyrant. It has taught us to set the wheels of our thoughts into comfortable ruts. We picked up the dialect provided to us to speak without thinking, and now we use it to help a smaller and smaller number of companies buy and sell us.
I hate it.
Give me an experience I can’t quantify. Give me ambiguity a computer can’t parse. I no longer wish to be aggregated.
There’s a species of carnivorous plant that grows only in a few small patches of coastal Oregon and northern California. Darlingtonia californica, also called the cobra lily, rears up out of boggy, nutrient-poor soil in bright green hooded stalks shot through with translucent red veins. As it grows it spits a pair of flat, forked leaves out the bottom of the hood like a tongue. Insects that crawl up into the hood are disoriented by a splash of small, transparent windows in the top of the stalk that obscure the true exit in their segmented vision, leading them inward and down on a ramp of slippery hairs to the digestive enzymes waiting below.
The first time I saw them was on a mountainside off the highway, where my wife and I had decided to pull over for a short stretch-our-legs hike on a long drive south. A Did You Know? sign at the beginning of the boardwalk trail informed us that we would be crossing over a region of serpentine soil, high in minerality and low in organic content, where few species can grow and those that do often grow nowhere else.
We passed a half mile between sparse Jeffrey pine and manzanita bushes, sweating in the heat, noting that we were sweating in the heat when we had been shivering on the Pacific coast just that morning, taking bad pictures of the brown mountain. Then we turned a corner and came upon them in their thousands.
Where Darlingtonia grows, nothing else can thrive, and Darlingtonia’s thriving window is narrow. They cluster in fields with sharp, discrete borders. They travel the precise lines of the soil that will support them and tread not an inch further. But they pack the territory they can occupy to its absolute limit, crowded like subway passengers, stacked and gleaming like Chihuly sculptures. The bulbs of the clustered hoods catch sunlight in their tiny windows and sparkle when struck. In a boggy dip in the tan-and-silver mountainside, Darlingtonia glowed bright, electrifying green to the furthest edges of our vision. I hadn’t known they existed five minutes before, and I loved them more than anything I’d ever seen.
This year, I took my mom to Darlingtonia State Park on our trip down the coast together. It’s a lowland park by the ocean, another short boardwalk trail culminating in a sprawling Darlingtonia bog with plants two and three feet high. The thick forest and patchy sun throw shifting spotlights across the bog. Unlike in the mountains, you can reach out and touch them if you want to—lean in close to see the tiny windows spangling the hood, photograph them with the sun behind them.
My mom wasn’t terribly impressed by them. She appreciated that they were an ecological oddity, and she enjoyed them for being unlike anything she could see in Illinois. She thought the park overall was lovely. Generally speaking, though, she found the neon-yellow spikes of the skunk cabbage more impressive among the bog plants.
But she loved the moss best. We traveled in early spring, which means something different about every fifty miles you go in the Pacific Northwest. But in the rainforest it means that the sun reliably breaks through the clouds for the first time since October, all the trees steam in the late morning light, and the moss puts out new growth. In Darlingtonia State Park, she turned her back on the cobra lilies and made her way carefully off the trail to a clearing she’d seen in the distance between the trees, seeking moss.
She loved all of it. She loved the thick moss that wrapped itself around the bottoms of the young, skinny birches. “It’s like leg warmers!” she said. She loved the moss wrapped up with lichen that hung in curtains from the old, broad trees. She loved when it curled around branches in spiraling, fractal fingers. She loved more than anything the trees that grew moss that grew ferns—she stopped a hundred times to photograph a deep-green tangle crawling up the spine of an old, leaning fir, clustered with tiny, soft fern fronds.
I have a picture from that trip of my mom leaning into a cedar with a ten-foot diameter trunk, hands outstretched. In the background, the sun backlights yellow-green haloes of moss around the thin upper branches of all the neighboring trees. The clouds were high and thin that day, the sun warm when it came, the rain intermittent. This park was close to home but somehow we’d never made it out there before, not realized we were quite so close to old-growth forest like this. My mom’s mouth is open mid-word, her face brilliant with joy. Under both her hands there is moss.
Indra Das’ The Devourers is great, by the way.