Of Books, friends, and Algorithms

Artificial Intelligence based “recommendation systems” are becoming ubiquitous. For every book you buy or browse on Amazon, for every book you rate in Goodreads, there is “you may also like” list made for you. And to be fair, it works. You find books there that you would like, based upon what else you have liked, and what people who’ve liked the same things as you have also liked. Artificial intelligence algorithms are already good, and getting better at this.

But when I go back to the books, anda to the authors that went on to become most cherished experiences of my life, very few have come from the algorithms, many have come from friends. Most from just two or three friends. And it’s not like these people were my close friends before — it was like in the process of this read recommendations, and discussions around those books, the friendships cemented. With those friends at least, the foundations of friendships were built on the books.

The reason why I wanted to clarify that part is important (at least in my mind) — it wasn’t like they knew me deeply to be able to know what I will enjoy. Hell, my teen/post-teen phase was dominated by Ayn Rand’s writings; and knowing that me would hardly have helped anyone to recommend to me some of the more literary authors that I ended up absolutely wowed by later on.

The thing about AI algorithms is that they are not required to take a leap of faith on your behalf. Your friends, on the other hand, have to. The act of recommending someone a book/movie/music even food is a leap of faith. Every recommendation carries with it its own risks — one of a potential disappointment (that’s personal to the one recommending), other of being judged by the one you’re recommending something to. Even if these risks are not overt, they are part and the parcel of the act. AI algorithm doesn’t feel the first, and the only way it has to deal with the second is as a data point to further learning. Unlike friends.

However, it’s that unique challenge that friendship throws at you make you take that leap of faith. And it’s through that leap of faith does one really beat the urge to do safe recommendations, like an AI algorithm would.

For me, it’s those friends who took that leap of faith that have influenced my reading most, widening my horizons, challenging my ideas of what I ought — or ought not — to like. It’s through these friends that I’ve been introduced to authors like Hermann Hesse, Umberto Eco, Amitav Ghosh, Marquez, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion, Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Koestler, Orhan Pamuk, Milan Kundera, Terry Pratchett, Geoff Dyer, Zadie Smith, Stephen Fry, Kamila Shamsie, Mikhail Bulgakov, Murakami, Borges …

And it’s those friends who keep pushing the boundaries of my reading. Like this one that was recently lent to me by one of those friends – a book that started this rumination:

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I’m only a few pages into it, but I know I am going to come back to it again and again. And there was no way I’d have picked this up, if not for the friend who practically put it in my hands. And it’s the faith I have in his ability to point me to new lands that I’d relish, that made me drop everything else I was reading and pick it up. Only friendships can do that. In the AI dominated world of the future, I still think, if humans still have something worthwhile left to do, this act of faith will be one. Thank you all my friends who have contributed to my growth as a reader. I owe it to you to pay it forward. If, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this, you know I’m talking about you.

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