The Internet of Dumb Gods

or, How the cult of the algorithm relates to Lovecraft’s pantheon.

The Eldritch Myths in Lovecraft

The gargantuan entities sometimes are not purposefully malevolent, just unconcerned and unaware of humanity. Evil presupposes intent, and in the Cthulhu Mythos, humans are just collateral damage of their egotistical pursuits. Even the most faithful cultists can’t escape such a terrible fate. Beyond petty mundane rewards, ultimately nothing more than madness and doom will come from interacting with the Eldritch Gods.

The ironical futility of the Universe is well represented in the most powerful god, Azathoht, the dumb and blind entity babbling at the center of the Universe. Lesser deities keep playing a maddening tune on innumerable flutes and drums, preventing Azathoth from awakening.

Outside the ordered universe [is] that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity — the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes.

H.P.Lovecraft―The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

Azathoth, the Blind Dumb God at the Center of the Universe

Immersed in an endless slumber, Azathoth is unbothered and unaware of their worshippers. But that doesn’t stop them from trying to please It, by trial and error of different actions intended to discern and carry its inscrutable will.

Internet flux is governed by Azathoth-like algorithms at its center

The Almighty Algorithm is, in the whispered perplexities of content creators, as capricious and ineffable as a god, one that rules the fates of their online success. Feared and revered, the narratives around the obscure workings of machine learning models have a mystic undertone. “The algorithm doesn’t like adding text to the picture”, “The algorithm works best when I show my face”, “Don’t post on Tuesdays!”.

The God at the Center of the Internet is an algorithm, made of secrecy and statistics.

It is now common to hear people talking about “the algorithm” as an entity, attributing will and intention. One that “hates” or “likes” content, and that punishes and rewards based on secrecy and statistics. The algorithm has been not only anthropomorphized, but also canonized.

There is science behind the inner workings of AI models, but there is much divination and pragmatic trial-and-error mysticism in the ways of their users. Some combinations of pictures, video, captions and hashtags are #blessed with viralization. There are “rituals” that help the content to thrive: consistency, posting at the same time of the day, avoiding some words and favoring others. Trends to catch, reels to be made over static images, our self expression is behaviourally conditioned by algorithmic superstition. In the hush-hush behind the posting there is much speculation: nobody knows for sure but “don’t edit and republish”, “don’t schedule a post”, “don’t post too much in a row”, just in case.

And the Algorithm is a vain god, one that feeds on atention and rewards those who can create content that can keep people watching and doom-scrolling as long as possible.

Attention is the scarce resource to compete for, and there are a myriad of algorithms working behind the curtains to determine what is put in front of our eyes. How content ranks, what gets to your newsfeed, and what is destined to digital ostracism, is determined by secret recipes of optimization whose values and methods we ignore, due to the lack of transparency and black-box nature of AI.

In a world made of information, the algorithms are the arbiters and adjudicators. Therefore, devotional offerings are made to the altar of the Al-God: we change the way we look and speak, we smile, and we pose, praying for its favor.

New magic words appear, trying to gain the volatile will of the Al-God. In the Discord servers of AI art platforms like Midjourney or DALL-E, prompts are threaded carefully like praying beads. Lengthy sentences that go beyond just describing a prompt, with words like “octane render”, “trending on Artstation”, or “isometric-mancer” making the rounds. One outstanding result influences users to try to replicate the success with much A/B testing and uncertainties of which one of those “magic words” was the catalyst of the great results.

For best or worst, the algorithm works in mysterious ways.

Arbitrary brimstone comes in the form of “shadowbanning”, a punishment that implies diminishing the ability of the content of an user to reach other user’s feeds.

Muting the reach of an user is the digital equivalent of the Roman law “capitis diminutio”, which progressively eliminated some of the characteristics of a person’s former legal or capacity status. But in the “algo-ghosting” users usually don’t know they are being targeted. Akin with the despicable procedural methods of the Spanish Inquisition, the accused stands in the dark. They do not know which transgression has been made, as they are extracted from an automatic interpretation of what lies buried in lengthy and ineffable Terms of Service or Content Policies. Most of the time, even those supervising the algorithms do not either, because the decisions made by most massive AI systems lack explainability or traceability.

Much like Lovecraft’s pantheon, at the center of Internet’s universe there is an entity adjudicating our fates, ruling how we connect and what we get to see. One that we called “The Algorithm” in singular, but that in fact is one and many, as everyday content is mediated by a massive amount of algorithms interacting with each other.

Despite unconsciously attributing intelligence and neutrality to AI, the Algorithm at the center of the Internet is as unwitting and blindfolded as Azathoth. Algorithms are unaware of intrinsic values or context, they are amoral. Not because they are essentially chaotic or evil, but just a mathematical efficient box of resonance, programmed to do at their best what they are asked for. Left unchecked and without human ethics guidance, they tend to reward fringe and shocking content, leading down to a slippery slope of online echo chambers, polarization and radicalization.

Like Azathoht worshippers, the cult of the algorithm might provide some individual marginal benefits, while tipping the scale of collective dysphoria into primordial chaos.

Thanks for reading! As this is “the internet” and comments can be…wacky, let me emphasize that talking about “the algorithm” as an entity is a figure of speech. I DO know it is neither alive, nor conscious, and that it is not a satanic presence and/or a primordial god…

Also, that this post is a work in progress of ideas that I will probably revisit and expand.

You can support my work by subscribing to “This week in the ➡️ #Metaverse” , a weekly roundup of what’s happening in the digital land(scape). Metaverse ethics, governance and interesting trends from crypto, gaming and regulation. Thanks!!!

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Micaela Mantegna

Abogamer. Video Games, Metaverse & AI ethics. Generative AI, Art and copyright researcher. @TED Fellow. @BKCHarvard Affiliate.