In this day of video-everything, the old-time art and skill of puppetry is still hanging on, if by a thread, so to speak [and yes, it’s a terrible pun]. In fact, one well-known F&SF author – Mary Robinette Kowal – is also a successful professional puppeteer. And there still is something fascinating about what a skilled puppeteer can do.

Unfortunately, there are puppeteers in our lives that go totally unrecognized. Most people recognize slanted news as a form of puppetry, and, of course, “slanted” refers to the news we’d rather not hear, rather than inaccurate news. Most people don’t make a distinction between accurate slanted news and inaccurate slanted news, which is a shame. I’d define “accurate” slanted news as news where every fact is correct, but where facts are missing or where accurate facts are presented in a misleading context. Obviously, inaccurate slanted news is where both facts and context are wrong and deliberately mislead. Equally obvious is the fact that even accurate facts in a correct context can be perceived as misleading and totally slanted and inaccurate news can be perceived as accurate and truthful by those who wish to believe it.

Advertising can also be another form of puppetry, with a myriad of techniques used to influence and guide potential buyers. One could also call campaign donations as at least a form of attempted puppetry.

But there’s another form of puppetry that grows daily in its influence and sophistication, and that’s the online/internet algorithm. Everyone knows about algorithms, at least in the general sense, and how they pop up suggesting that you buy “X” because you purchased something similar. Because I periodically check on how my books are selling at certain outline retailers I get lots of emails and ads suggesting I buy more of my own books. This sort of puppetry is obvious, and often annoying, but among the algorithms that really bother me are the ones that govern search engines, because those algorithms are “optimized” for someone other than me, and for the most part, from what I can discern, for “popular” tastes and requests. That means it’s a lot more work for me to find what I want. In fact, it seems harder and harder every year.

But the deeper problem is that with more and more people using search engines and with the breadth of the internet and its comparative shallowness [unless you have access to an academic/university library database], what generally comes up in response to any inquiry on a given word and subject is pretty much the same. It’s popular, but is it accurate? How can you effectively cross-check it? Well… if you want to read every entry, you might get a better idea, or you might get a hundred versions of the same thing.

In a way, the convenience of the internet and algorithms can make an unsuspecting user a puppet, while conveying a sense of being informed that’s not always warranted. Despite the myth of the “wisdom of the crowd,” that was based on estimating numbers of physical objects that were physically present, not on evaluating the complexities of a high-tech society. Marketing and search algorithms have little to do with factual accuracy, only with popularity, and that’s something always to remember, because as human beings, we can be so easily seduced by popularity.

5 thoughts on “Puppetry”

  1. John Prigent says:

    It’s not ony algorithms that disrupt web searches for specific things, but also the way that some search engines present first the sites of paying advertisers. If you search for, say, the official site about ‘applying for a driving licence in such-and-such a place’ do you really want to have advertisers’ websites displayed that will charge you a fee for something that the authorities will provide for free?

  2. Jim S says:

    There’s a special magic in someone who can bring an inanimate object to life. I’ve read several accounts of people going to a Sesame Street stage or interview with one of the characters where they completely forget about the puppeteer in dealing with the puppet.

    The other forms of puppetry you mention — they do the same thing. We deal with the results, and forget all about who’s creating them.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    My mom made many puppets over the years; mostly rod or hand puppets rather than marionettes. I have quite a set of commercially made ones that my grandmother got me when I was little; now in a basket on its side with curtains as if it were a stage. Alas, they just sit there and get glanced at once in awhile.

    As to the Internet, one thing one can do is try other search engines, as well as get more proficient with the ones that are there.

    is one of the lists of search engines; and here’s a list
    that includes some specialized ones as well. duckduckgo claims to not track or attempt to personalize results.

    arxiv.org is a free site for science and economics papers, a final version of which may end up in a subscription professional journal. Even grander than that, doaj.org is a directory of open access (no paywall) journals.

    The Library of Congress is searchable (the catalog, not the contents of the documents).

    So plenty of quality information is available, even without paying extra for access; but merely using a single favorite search engine all the time will not necessarily be effective in finding it, and almost certainly _will_ impose biases.

  4. DArcherd says:

    It could be worse. Those algorithms suggesting you buy more of your own books could be suggesting you buy your competitor’s books instead!

  5. M. Kilian says:

    The apparent convenience of search engines for browsing the internet is even more worrying than algorithms. Apart from the algorithms burying original terms for newer, more popular terms- a good example of this would be the search “dark knight”.

    Before the announcement and release of the 2008 Batman movie “The Dark Knight”, this search would have a variety of examples of literature and art about dark knights, including some historic examples. One could garner inspiration for story or roleplay elements for the concept of a dark knight, even concept art and so forth. Now however, a search for dark knight will give many articles of similar flavour about the movie. It takes a few pages just to get anything but the movie.

    Worse than the algorithms that effectively suppress less popular information however are the active measures taken against websites that companies which provide search engines like Google don’t want people to have access to. And this kind of subversive censorship isn’t just present when browsing web pages.

    Discord, which is the latest successor of the instant message client genre such as AOL, MSN, Skype etc, has also acted against the propagation of ideas that the administration of the company don’t agree with. Website based social platforms like Facebook and Twitter also undergo this censorship. YouTube puts entire channels into a “limited state” that restricts anyone but those with direct links from finding their content.

    As for fact checking and cross checking, the painful monopoly on academic knowledge becomes apparent as well. There was an attempt at breaking the blockade as it were in the form of Sci-Hub as the “Pirate Bay” of academic papers. Otherwise people are restricted to what the algorithms push out after certain viewpoints have been expunged.

    It has been worrying me for some time now.

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