QualityLand Book Review: What If the Algorithms Are Wrong

If you’re reading this, you’re on the internet. If you’re on the internet, I’m willing to bet there is an algorithm working right now, trying to figure out what you’d like to buy.

It’s pretty much impossible to get away from ads for more of whatever you were just looking at, or ordered, online. Sometimes these ads are super helpful, actually presenting a good deal or version of something you actually want or need. Sometimes, though, as I’m sure you’ve also found, they are way off.

A while ago I bought some glasses online. I am, indeed, a near-sighted book nerd. So, I bought these glasses and was immediately flooded with ads for more glasses. Everywhere I went these ads insisted I needed glasses. Insisted I should start a glasses collection, I suppose, so I could switch them with my mood, or something.

Sometimes the algorithms are wrong. If I buy glasses, I will in fact not need more glasses immediately. The ideal algorithm would then show me ads of cardigan options. Or chocolate. Things I might need more of.

Yes, I am all the stereotypes.

Cover of QualityLand by Marc-Uwe Kling
Looks a lot like a package from a massively popular online retailer, doesn’t it?

Anyway, a spectacular example of the algorithm being shockingly wrong is in Qualityland by Marc-Uwe Kling. Qualityland is a near-future country that decided to rebrand. (It’s Germany – you can tell from the jokes, and the fact the author is German.)

In this land, where people are named after the professions of their parents at conception, poor Peter Jobless receives an unsolicited package at his door, of a pink, dolphin-shaped “feminine device”. He has not ordered this.

He does not want it, but the algorithms have long been sending people items before they go to the trouble of actually asking for them. Of course, there is no way the algorithms are wrong, so there is no way for him to return it.

So begins an epic quest to return the unwanted “device” to a company that insists the item could not actually be unwanted, because, well, the algorithm cannot be wrong. All of Qualityland is built on the assumption the algorithm is perfect.

It is truly epic. There are explosions, paranoid old men, unpredictable women, and of course many, many robots. What happens when Jobless goes up against TheShop? Hilarity.

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