Rabbit Holes

The curse of the algorithm is also its genius: the goal is to make you watch one more video, but whether you click or not, it uses that fact to become even more persuasive next time. The forces of repetition win either way. It’s the inverse of channel hopping: rather than randomly skipping until something grabs you, it serves you a seemingly random but utterly calculated platter of options.

The whole beauty and terror of machine learning is that we don’t know what conclusions the machine will reach, and we certainly don’t know how it will get there. It’s smarter than us in some respects; in others profoundly worse. Where people are irresistibly drawn towards misery and outrage, it will serve them more than they could ever have imagined looking for. And if all you want is videos of animals interrupting each other’s naps, it’s got you covered.

One genre to rise out of the new media soup is the mesmerizing process video. These videos depict precise, repetitious activities of all kinds. They can be industrial, artisanal, or leisurely: making pencils, toothbrushes, or marbles on the assembly line; an old and unbelievably patient man sharpening knives; archery or darts. And if you display even a passing interest in one of them, the machine will serve you a million more. Down the rabbit hole you go. 

These videos have the smooth predictability of the lullaby. Life may be chaotic, but every brush gets the same bristles. Every knife is sharpened with the same motion across the whetstone. If, like most modern professionals, you spend your days and minutes processing abstract information (accounts, regulations, timetables, and the rest), an outside observer watching you work would have no idea what you were trying to achieve. A straightforward, practical task is a welcome contrast. Whether they are making watches or hot sauce, the best examples demonstrate a casual mastery that might be as close as humans get to perfection. 

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with style. The answer is that my particular choice of rabbit hole is shoe repair. The format is always the same: some terribly afflicted shoe (worn into the ground, stained, dried out, and cracked) is stripped down, taken apart, and slowly rebuilt. The heel comes off, and then the sole (pulling out the nails, and in some cases, dissolving an awful lot of glue). Excess polish is stripped off, suede is shampooed, leather redyed and moisturized. New soles are sewn on (sometimes with a new welt), trimmed, sanded, colored and buffed. New laces and polish seal the deal.

These videos are bad TV in some respects. They have endless amounts of dead air because the explanations are short and the work is long. In fact, there’s little drama at all. Few complaints about the negligent wearers (who are, after all, the customers) or poor craftsmanship. Occasionally an expensive but flimsy Italian loafer will be subtly improved as it’s rebuilt.

No problem is too grave. The welt is chewed up and there’s nothing left to sew. The shoes got wet and the shank corroded like an old gate. The boots are so gnarled that you can’t tell if they’re calf leather or suede. However bad things get, tragedy turns to comedy by the end. Every job is different but by the end they’re all the same.

In our algorithmic paradise, something is provided for all so that none may escape. But as genres go, shoe restoration isn’t bad. It has the structure of a TV serial: disaster strikes, triggering a series of different but related challenges through which the damage is repaired and the world returns, for a moment, to the condition of perfection. And if this all sounds too wholesome for you, there’s always the “alternative” version: ASMR – GUCCI LOAFER RESOLE.

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