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A letter to Harper's
Back in June, Harper's Magazine published a short letter cleverly assembled out of small pieces of a wildly overlong letter I wrote them, trying to defend pop music against an article in the March issue that bothered me too much to leave alone. I'm not a letter-to-the-editor hobbyist, really I'm not, but in September Harper's ran a piece about using software agents and collaborative filtering to recommend books and music to people, a subject in which I have personal and professional stakes, and I felt compelled to say something again. This time, though, I made a conscious effort to keep the note short and focused, with the goal not only of getting it printed, but of getting it printed whole. Here's how close I got. My version is on the left, theirs on the right, with the bits that appear in only one of the versions in red, brighter where there's conceivably semantic import. The first sentences are mainly different because the letter they printed above mine had already provided the full citation.
Love, Your Agent
a letter to Harper's Magazine, 15 September 98
 
Sadly, Steven Johnson's example scenario, in "The Soul Encoded" [September], of an obscure new book finding a large audience through snowballing software-agent endorsements, is as unlikely as it is hopeful. For every hidden treasure that reaches ten passionate supporters through word of mouth, there will always be a dozen or two massively-promoted behemoths that can afford to recruit ten thousand earnest initial advocates. Manipulating collaborative filtering is just a matter of manipulating the collaborators, which is exactly what the big media companies are already best at.
 
But even if agents did have the potential to change the way we explore, why would we want them to? What is the point of art if not to form a vast human conversation? Perhaps there are a hundred books "just like" The Princess Bride that a perfect agent could direct me to, but none of them were sent to me by my girlfriend, away at boarding school, when I was sixteen. Where is the agent when I'm done with the book, breathless and desperate to talk about what it could mean for us? Our debates about art are our love letters to each other, and a machine for reading love letters, while a neat technological trick, would be as pointless and ultimately debilitating as an oven that eats our dinner for us.
 
glenn mcdonald
Cambridge, MA
YourSoul.com
Letters, Harper's Magazine, December 1998
 
Sadly, Johnson's scenario of an obscure new book finding a large audience through snowballing software-agent endorsements, is as unlikely as it is hopeful.
 
For every hidden treasure that reaches ten passionate supporters through word of mouth, there will always be the massively promoted behemoths that can afford to recruit ten thousand earnest initial advocates. (Manipulating collaborative filtering is just a matter of manipulating the collaborators.)
 
But even if agents did have the potential to change the way we explore, why would we want them to? What is the point of art if not to form a vast human conversation? Perhaps there are a hundred books "just like" The Princess Bride that a perfect agent could direct me to, but none of them were sent to me by my girlfriend, away at boarding school, when I was sixteen. Where is the agent when I'm done with the book, breathless and desperate to talk about what it could mean for us?
 
Glenn McDonald
Cambridge, Mass.
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