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E34. Antigone: The Last Recommendation Engine
“Can you think of something—a song or a movie—that, the time you first encountered it, filled up your consciousness entirely and made you say, this is perfect. This is everything."
It was the first Tuesday of the month, so I helped Lou Reed’s Nephew set up his sign. We sat for almost the entire four hours with no visitors. Lou Reed’s Nephew was silent during these periods, as if he had blocked off the time in his head for visitors and it couldn’t be used for anything else. Finally, at quarter to two, a woman arrived. She was about thirty. She had dark hair, cut short, and glasses the color of robins’ eggs. I guessed—correctly, based on the glasses—that she was European. Americans rarely draw such attention to their shortcomings. Her name was Margaux.
“What is your idea?” Lou Reed’s Nephew asked.
“It’s a company and it’s called Antigone,” she said. Her English was precise and matter of fact. She was fluent, but one had the sense of hearing a careful translation of an original. It’s a company and it’s called Antigone. Purely logical use of the conjunction, and the pacing of Antigone—An-TI-go-NEE—was halting.
“And what is that?”
“It’s the Last Recommendation Engine.”
“I see,” he said. “Another recommendation engine.”
“The Last Recommendation engine,” she corrected. “This is the tagline. Antigone: The Last Recommendation Engine.”
“I see,” he said. “And what makes it new or—last?”
“Irony,” she said. Again, the stentorian precision. I-RO-nee. Her fingers were exquisite, tapering in perfect proportion to one another, hovering above her keyboard like levels in a terraced garden.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to explain,” he said.
“Most recommendation engines work by association. If you consume X, they look at other people who have consumed X, look at what else they have consumed, and when a lot of people who have consumed X have also consumed Y, they recommend Y to you.”
“Makes perfect sense,” I blurted, suddenly concerned that Lou Reed’s Nephew would fail to understand, and risk alienating, our lovely guest. I could see the tables in my mind. Preferences joined by common people; people joined by common preferences. She seemed grateful for my intervention.
“This works but has limits long-term. Those recommendation engines process all these relationships, with greater speed and efficiency as necessary, but they fail to see why these preferences are associated, and often make errors.”
“What sorts of errors?” I asked. (I had now taken over the interview, though Lou Reed’s Nephew didn’t seem to mind. If factions formed, I wanted to be in the majority.)
“They fail to take into the account the complex nature of taste, which is not determined only by what one has immediate affection for—what we at Antigone call naïve taste—but what one has indirect affinity for, things one consumes sideways, as it were, from hate watches to curiosities and everything in between.”
“I see. There are things I consume because I like them, and those I consume because I’ve found an attitude from which it is possible to like them—the ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of thing.”
“Precisely.” she said. “Hegel couldn’t have said it better.”
“You are German?” I said, excited to continue her excitement.
“No,” she said. “French.”
“Odd,” I said, wounded.
“Not really,” she said. “Germans hate their philosophers, so we love them for them.” I appreciated her recovery on my behalf.
“Relational recommendation engines don’t capture this,” she said. “They cannot tell the difference between someone who loves The Office because they think it’s cool and someone who thinks it is campy. And these two people, who are likely of different ages, will have completely different attitudes toward Pulp Fiction. Someone who saw it when they were 23 in the theater will think it is the definition of cool, while someone who watched it at Film Forum at 23 will be watching a quotation of the same movie, which might heighten or weaken the affinity, since ebbs and flows of taste—what we call fashion—flow like sine waves through time.”
Lou Reed’s Nephew’s eyes turned to me at the mention of Pulp Fiction.
“I think I understand,” I said. I was desperate to keep the conversation going. “How does Antigone solve this problem?”
“Through dialectical calibration,” she said. “Which is why I mention Hegel. Rather than asking people at the onset what things they ‘like’—which is ambiguous in the ways I’ve explained—users take a survey to determine what artifacts they liked immediately, with no hint of irony, and when.”
“Can you give us an example?” Lou Reed’s Nephew asked.
“Whey,” she let slip, certainly for my benefit.
She fumbled inside the large, fashionable bag she had brought with her and retrieved an object I had never seen before. It was a translucent sphere the size of a softball. She also pulled a small circular pedestal from the bag. She placed this on the table between us and set the sphere on top of the little stand so it wouldn’t roll away.
“What is this?” Lou Reed’s Nephew asked petulantly. He was either impatient with the presentation or with the fact that the center of attention had drifted away from him yet again.
“This is Antigone,” Margaux said, smiling like a proud parent.
Antigone faintly glowed, and then spoke.
“Can you think of something—a song or a movie—that, the time you first encountered it, filled up your consciousness entirely and made you say, this is perfect. This is everything. I feel complete in a world that includes this. And when did this happen?”
The voice was Margaux’s, though in a more even, professional tone. The effect was eerie, with Margaux sitting there quietly. It was like we were communicating telepathically, and Lou Reed’s Nephew had no say in the matter.
I thought for a moment.
“Side-one of the cassette of Psychocandy by The Jesus and Mary Chain in 1985. I was 16 years old.”
“An under-indexing, but not entirely uncommon, choice for suburban American males your age,” Margaux said.
This hurt, as it does, when someone identifies you as a member of a cohort, as a type, rather than an individual.
“Can you tell me anything else?” Antigone cooed. They were a team—Antigone and Margaux—like the dyads Lou Reed’s Nephew had seen in Atlanta.
I thought about my discovery of Psychocandy. I had just gotten a driver’s license. I had bought a car—an Oldsmobile Starfire with the “S” missing, the “Tarfire”—for less than a thousand dollars, money made working for six months at Burger King, during which time I failed to get the hang of the grilling machine or remove the smell of Whoppers from my asymmetrical haircut. The car was my ticket to freedom. My Indian Poker. I read that The Jesus and Mary Chain were causing riots in England with sets that only lasted ten minutes and I wanted in. I had been looking for a way in—or out—for a while, through the available portals of the era. Repo Man. The Suicidal Tendencies. Anything that might confuse my parents. The Sex Pistols toured America when I was nine. The news came on the radio in the Vega, on our way back from the local department store where I had just bought a record by The Monkees with my parents’ full, disappointing permission. I asked my parents who The Sex Pistols were. Mom said they were disgusting. I couldn’t wait to get involved with them. I can remember the samizdat feel of Never Mind the Bullocks when I finally did, from the ransom note cover to the hysterical vocals. But this was all borrowed excitement. Background. The remnants of a previous generation. The Clash had already put out Combat Rock. I saw them on Saturday Night Live when I stayed up late at my aunt’s.
Psychocandy was all mine. It felt like it had been made especially for me and that I had discovered it against great odds. It was the kind of feeling Martin Luther must have had when he realized that each person had an individual, unique relationship with their creator and that God just was the power that could maintain all these relationships without diminishing the strength of a single one. I could not believe you could put out a record like that, with a wall of static in the foreground, the vocals way back there like the voice of God. (Or his opposite. This was a year in which George Michael’s “Careless Whispers” was the most popular song in America.) As soon as I heard it, it became the entirety of my definition of that shallow but crucial word: Cool. This is what cool was. When a friend who I thought of as marginally less cool than I was got in the Tarfire and heard it, he asked if my tape deck was broken, sealing its status forever. I was in complete communion with The Jesus and Mary Chain.
I immediately knew Antigone and Margaux would understand. So completely and intimately it seemed inappropriate (even lewd) to share it, here, in front of Lou Reed’s Nephew.
“I just remember it was cool,” I said.
“You must forgive him,” Lou Reed’s Nephew said. “He’s compulsively withholding, like all members of his generation.”
“Based on that, I would calibrate your recommendations.” Margaux typed away. “Velvet Underground, the first record, is obviously in. The Smiths would have hit you right around puberty.”
“You are gay?” Antigone interrupted.
“Gay-friendly,” I said.
Memories of Morrisey’s melancholy counsel rushed through me. He had been mine, too. My Bowie. He gave me permission to be anything. A sad boy or a sad girl—if that’s what I wanted—while giving voice to the incredible, unstoppable pining of puberty. I wanted so much—more than I would ever want again—before I even knew what I wanted. I just wanted, and The Smiths were the soundtrack to this terrible need. What she said, I smoke because I’m hoping for an early death and I need to cling to something, wrapped in a vicious Johnny Marr lick that made me feel tough and frail at the same time.
“Early Morrissey exposure can break either way,” Margaux said.
Margaux knew what she was talking about.
“And you’re lukewarm on Nirvana, right?”
Uncanny. I was Lou Reed’s Nephew’s age when Nevermind came out, one year out of college, and I was suspicious. Having relished the unlistenability of Bleach, the effect of having Nirvana make it felt like being generationally doxxed, as though someone had gone through my mailbox of zines and was reading them on TV. This was “cooptation,” a word we used in the ’90s to describe the appropriation of white culture by white people. People who were 16 in 1991, six years younger than me, report experiencing the same event as pure generational effectiveness. What they liked became official culture, as if via their consciousness of it. They had succeeded, where Abbie Hoffman had failed, in levitating the Pentagon.
“That’s right,” I said.
“You were probably more excited about The Pixies’ cover of ‘Head On’?”
Lou Reed’s Nephew looked bored, but I was transported to the exact moment. I felt like I must have been the only person in the world for whom this was a necessary, culminating synthesis. The world could die in pain and I wouldn’t feel no shame.
“You might already be familiar with some of our work,” Antigone said, in what sounded like a paid placement.
This made me feel excited but vulnerable, like she was about to reveal the secret Lou Reed’s Nephew had learned about at Camel Toe.
“Did you see Lost in Translation?” Antigone asked.
“Yes,” I said. It had been our first date—Renata’s and mine. I talked so much we almost didn’t go on a second one. I didn’t feel like mentioning my wife or letting Margaux know how deeply Antigone had seen into my soul.
“Definitely not worth Best Original Screenplay,” I said.
“Naturally,” Margaux said. “You were not the core audience for it. What do you remember most?”
“Before the credits roll—after Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson kiss—it cuts to ‘Just Like Honey.’ Track one of Psychocandy.”
“The first commercial use of our algo,” Margaux said. “We had to put something in there for you. You were about to age out. An Easter egg to expand the audience, just a little.”
“Interesting,” I said as I stalled for time. This was so much worse than cooptation.
“‘Interesting’ is a bullshit word,” Lou Reed’s Nephew interjected.
“When someone has nothing to say, but they want to talk anyway, they always say something is ‘interesting,’’”
“And why is the algorithm called Antigone?” I asked.
“Owl of Minerva was taken,” Margaux said, “By a website that sells birdfeeders made out of upcycled adding machines.”
“I read somewhere that birdfeeders were decisive at the Battle of Hastings,” I said, glad to change the subject. “But I can’t remember why.”