Welcome to Source Notes, a new Future Tense column in which Stephen Harrison explores Wikipedia, digital knowledge, and the search for a fact-based world.
When I’m getting ready in the mornings, I often ask my Amazon Echo for the weather forecast or a flash news briefing. Lately, though, I’ve been experimenting with something else: “Computer, give me a quote.” (Note: I continue to say Computer instead of Alexa, but that’s another story.)
The Daily Quotes skill for Echo and other Alexa devices promises “quotes from celebrities and prominent figures to bring you a daily dose of fun and motivation.” Rather than offering specific advice, the quotes usually speak to general inspirational themes like dreaming big and the value of persistence. After reciting the quote, Alexa will ask if you’d like to keep going. “The next quote comes from the co-founder of PayPal. Would you like another quote?” More than once, I’ve asked for another quote, then another … until suddenly I’ve finished my coffee and heard dozens of quotes without feeling sufficiently inspired to leave for my morning commute.
During the first of these quote sprees a few weeks ago, I noticed something unusual. Within less than five minutes, out of nine quotes, Alexa recited two lines from Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, richest person in the world, National Enquirer adversary, nemesis of New Yorkers. From Bezos: “Invention is by its very nature disruptive. If you want to be understood at all times, then don’t do anything new.” Also from Jeff Bezos: “If you decide that you’re going to do only the things you know are going to work, you’re going to leave a lot of opportunity on the table.” Deep.
Hearing those two quotes got me thinking: Bezos is fabulously wealthy, yes, but does he really deserve multiple entries in humanity’s top quotations? That’s when I sought to investigate how Amazon selects the quotes that are piped through its Alexa devices. Since Daily Quotes is a suggested skill on these smart speakers, more than 100 million of which live in people’s homes, this seemed like a good way to consider the state of digital knowledge overall, and how certain types of information are prioritized.
It would not have surprised me to discover that Daily Quotes was leveraging one of Wikimedia’s open content sites. Smart digital assistants such as Alexa, Siri, and Cortana often pull information directly from Wikipedia to answer verbal questions. Google uses the open-source encyclopedia to populate the Knowledge Graphs that appear to the right of search results. If Amazon were looking for freely accessible dynamic content, then Wikiquote (one of Wikipedia’s sister projects) might have been an attractive option.
Turns out, Daily Quotes doesn’t pull its content from a wiki, but rather from Goodreads, the reading community website that Amazon acquired in 2013. Besides book recommendations, the “world’s largest community of readers” allows users to add and like their favorite quotes. According to Amazon, the Daily Quotes skill includes recordings from more than 100 of the most popular quotes from Goodreads. If you invoke the skill, you’ll hear a random quote from this pool. The quotes are not personalized. Even if I enjoy quotes from musicians, for example, I will not necessarily hear more of them. And despite my initial suspicions, the algorithm of Daily Quotes is not designed to favor Bezos or any other individual. It’s simpler than that: The app mirrors the top most popular quotes rated by the Goodreads community.
On the one hand, this seems reasonable. If the goal is to design a program that delivers famous quotes, it makes sense to leverage a database where millions of people have logged their preferences. Then again, if the goal is distributing humanity’s best wisdom, it raises the question of whether this voting system, which reminds me of a cross between high school prom court and American Idol, is appropriate.
The notion that popularity equals wisdom strikes me as a 21st-century rebranding of the idea that “might makes right,” and worth applying the energy to investigate. I’m also a sucker for punishment, so I decided to record information on the quotes that emerged from my Amazon device. For purposes of my data I ignored repeat quotes, even though presumably people who only listened to one quote per day (amateurs!) would hear several repeats. Once I reached 122 distinct quotes, I hit a solid wall of repetition, with the same quotes over and over, so I believe it’s reasonable to assume that 122 quotes approximate the underlying body of content.
Here were some of the results:
• Steve Jobs had the most quotations: seven, or about half a percent of the pool.
• Jeff Bezos was quoted three times out of 122.
• Taylor Swift was the most quoted woman with four, followed by Madonna and Oprah with three each. (The two singers make similar points. Taylor Swift: “If they don’t like you for being yourself, be yourself even more.” Madonna: “If your joy is derived from what society thinks of you, you’re always going to be disappointed.”)
• 75 percent of the quoted people were from the United States.
• Eighty percent of the quotes came from men, 20 percent from women.
I showed my data to Monika Sengul-Jones, a doctoral candidate who is finishing her Ph.D. in the Department of Communications and Science Studies Program at the University of California–San Diego, where she researches technologies of content production. Sengul-Jones observed that the gender gap of male and female speakers was large, but not all that surprising. Other projects have similar divides, including Wikipedia, where less than 18 percent of the biographical articles are about women. “One of the easiest things to gravitate to is the numbers,” Sengul-Jones said. “But that’s a very surface-level way of thinking about marginalization of knowledges.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, including how the quotations are skewed toward recent history and have a strong U.S. focus. But perhaps most striking is how the app favors the extremely wealthy: I heard pearls of wisdom from Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg in business (and specifically, big tech) and from entertainers like Marilyn Monroe, Chuck Norris, and Brad Pitt. Then there were the athletes. In my sample, roughly 25 percent of the quotes came from professional athletes. Are the likes of David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Phelps, and the disgraced Lance Armstrong genuinely responsible for a quarter of the world’s top wisdom? “The message seems to be that the appropriate source of inspiration is from richness, which is gained through celebrity, businesses, and athleticism,” Sengul-Jones said in an email.
Before I researched this, I hadn’t given much thought to how my daily quotes had been selected. I suspect I’m not alone in sometimes accepting knowledge uncritically. Since my deep dive, I’ve been thinking about this book on my nightstand, Quotes That Will Change Your Life, edited by Russ Kick. I enjoy the book a lot, but it occurs to me that I can reasonably assume the book itself is relatively biased. Specifically, it favors quotations that Kick himself enjoys. But with Alexa and the other digital assistants we’ve invited into the home, there is no name on the cover of the book. Without an obvious author or curator, we might assume that the machine accesses a vast superior intelligence instead of selecting from the in-group of today’s rich and powerful. For me, the lesson is to become aware of the small-scale popularity contests that are directing the device, and to not assume that the machine is connecting to a wider, wiser world.