Sim suburbia

When your Tivo thinks you’re gay

A great piece in the Wall Street Journal about how Tivo can make some wildly inaccurate predictions about its users:

Mike Binder, creator and star of [The Mind of the Married Man], had set his home TiVo to record his 1999 movie, “The Sex Monster,” about a man whose wife becomes bisexual. After that, Mr. Binder’s TiVo assumed he would enjoy a steady stream of gay programming. Unnerved, he counteracted the onslaught by recording the Playboy Channel and MTV’s spring break bikini coverage. It worked, he says. “My TiVo doesn’t look at me funny anymore.”

His wife, however, was taken aback when she saw all the half-naked women he was ordering through TiVo. He told her those women meant nothing to him: “I’m just counterprogramming because TiVo thinks I’m gay.” She was unamused. The incident inspired an episode of his show.

Interestingly, the article never mentions “collaborative filtering” by name, even though I’m pretty sure that’s precisely the technique that Tivo — like Amazon — uses: The algorithm checks what everyone is watching, and finds connections between them all. It’s yet another example of how machine intelligence can be incredibly precise, yet weirdly inhuman, in its reasoning.

My favorite part is the story of Jeff Bezos interacting with Amazon’s collabortive filtering software:

For a live demonstration before an audience of 500 people, Mr. Bezos once logged onto ( to show how it caters to his interests. The top recommendation it gave him? The DVD for “Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity.” That popped up because he had previously ordered “Barbarella,” starring Jane Fonda, a spokesman explains.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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