Comic Art Friday: The ineffable WHY

Saturn Girl, pencils by comics artist Paul Abrams

It’s always the most difficult question to answer…

WHY?

And yet, it’s the question that shapes so many of our thoughts, impulses, and actions. Even when we don’t know the answer.

On my iPad, I use a news aggregator called Zite. (I probably won’t be using it for much longer, because a couple of months ago, Zite was purchased by its competitor Flipboard, which will probably extinguish its new acquisition sometime in the near future.)

Here’s how Zite works: It serves up a smorgasbord of links to articles from around the Internet – articles it believes you will want to read, based on your stated interests. For each article that appears, you have the option of giving a “thumbs up,” meaning “show me more articles like this,” or “thumbs down,” which of course means the opposite. The aggregator internalizes that information, and adjusts its future selections according to what you’ve indicated that you liked or didn’t like.

On the whole, Zite performs this function relatively well – which is, of course, why a competitor bought it. But there’s an inherent weakness in its processing…

Zite never knows WHY.

Let’s take a random article from my current Zite feed: “Apple Reportedly Acquiring Beats for $3.2 Billion.” Now suppose I gave this article a “thumbs up.” Zite, in its uniquely algorithmic way, would think, “Aha! He likes this! Let’s send him more stuff just like it!”

But how does it know what to send? It has no idea why I “liked” this particular article.

Here’s a list of some of the hypothetical reasons I might have given this a “thumbs up,” just off the top of my head:

  •  I’m an Apple stockholder, so I’m materially interested in news about the company.
  • I use Beats headphones, so I want to know whether the events described in this article will impact my ability to keep buying and using this product.
  • I’m a fan of Dr. Dre, the co-founder of Beats, so I like knowing what the good Doctor is up to.
  • I’m a gadgetoholic, and I devour anything tech related.
  • I’m a professional musician, so the future of streaming media directly impacts my livelihood. (One of the reasons it’s thought that Apple wanted to buy Beats is because Apple covets Beats’s new streaming music service.)
  • I like the site The Next Web, where this article is published.
  • Josh Ong, the author of the article, was a college buddy of mine, so I want to read everything he writes.

These are but a few of the possible reasons I might flag this article positively. I could probably come up with a dozen more if I kept pondering the matter. But the point is that Zite has no way of knowing which of these – or which several of them, or perhaps even none of them – is my real reason. (None of the above is true for me, incidentally. Okay, I might be a bit of a gadgetoholic. But not enough to care about Beats.)

Now, based on its interpretation of my feedback, Zite might show me more articles about Apple, about Beats headphones, about technology, about Dr. Dre, about streaming media, published by The Next Web, or written by the author of this article.

Or it might send me articles that meet any or all of these criteria, since it doesn’t really know which answer is correct, and it wants to cover all possible bases.

Which could mean that, instead of me getting more content that I want to read, I could conceivably be overwhelmed by a tsunami of content that doesn’t address my real interests.

All because Zite doesn’t know WHY.

This is the same issue that continually befouls Facebook’s ridiculous attempts to manage what posts – and what advertising – I as a Facebook user see. If I “like” something, Facebook’s algorithms will decide to show me more of what I “like.” But since Facebook hasn’t a clue WHY I “liked” that item, it could be making horrendously incorrect assumptions about my preferences, and therefore choosing to present content that I don’t care to see, while at the same time hiding from me content that would genuinely interest me, had I the opportunity to view it.

Which is, by the way, what almost always happens.

All because Facebook doesn’t know WHY.

This problem isn’t limited to our online apps and tools. We encounter this same roadblock in all manner of human interaction. Every moment we’re around other people – in the real world or in cyberspace – we take note of the words they speak or write, and the actions they manifest, and make judgments based thereon. But because we have such a hard time evaluating WHY people say what they say and do what they do, we often misjudge each other.

Complicating the problem is this…

We don’t always know WHY, even when the subject is ourselves.

I’m reminded of a story a friend once told. When he and his younger brother were preteens, their father severely chastised the younger brother for jumping up and down on his bed – risking his own safety and the structural integrity of the bed. The father made it clear that harsh punishment would ensue if the younger brother got caught jumping on the bed again.

Moments after the father left the room, the younger brother resumed his trampoline act. “Didn’t you hear what Dad just said? He’s gonna tan your hide!” whispered my panicked friend. “Why are you doing what he just told you not to do?”

The brother continued pogoing for a minute. Then, without stopping, he replied in mid-bounce, “I don’t know.”

We’ve all been that younger brother.

Inquiring minds want to know: What does any of this have to do with comic art?

Perhaps not much.

But then, there’s this.

When I post a piece of art from my collection here, or when you peruse my online galleries if you’re so inclined, you might make any number of assumptions based on that piece or group of pieces. You might theorize several reasons why I commissioned or purchased that artwork – could be the subject; could be the artist; could be that the scenario depicted holds some personal meaning for me; could be all of the above; could be any number of things.

Unless I tell you, you’ll never know for sure WHY.

Sometimes, I might not know WHY myself.

As for today’s featured artwork: That’s Saturn Girl, from the Legion of Super-Heroes, as drawn by the talented Paul Abrams.

No big WHY here… I just kind of like it.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Aimless Riffing, Comic Art Friday, Hero of the Day, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

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