Can Algorithms Make Us Happy?

First, a confession.  Growing up, I did my math homework first because I saw it as the least interesting.  It wasn’t so much that I hated it or found it too difficult, but I knew that the sooner I finished, the sooner I could settle into reading a book for English class or sketching something in my journal.  So, if my bias against math is apparent, I apologize.  The thing is that lately I’ve been thinking about the role of algorithms in my life, and I can’t tell how I feel about them.

Five-Year-Old Me With an Art Project

Five-Year-Old Me With an Art Project

I know algorithms are everywhere.  Every social media site is using some sort of algorithm to figure out what I like and give it to me. Recently I pulled up my home page on Pinterest and found links to a mug made with Amaco glazes, paintings by Vincent Van Gogh and Odilon Redon, an article about developing 21st century thinkers, an article about saving money by shopping at Aldi, and a pair of L. L. Bean boots.  Based on my search history and pins, the Pinterest algorithms had correctly guessed that I am a frugal art teacher living in chilly northern New England.  This is accurate, and as I scrolled down, I found more things that I liked – a tutorial on pouring acrylic paint, a recipe for a dirty chai coconut latte, DSW sneakers, paintings by Henri Le Sidaner, and a rainbow puffer jacket.  It was almost like the internet knew me.

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Heading over to Amazon, it was the same story.  They found me some salted Dutch licorice (an acquired taste), an ultra-light travel backpack, and a guidebook to Portugal.  I’d like to say that I’m an independent thinker who isn’t swayed by advertising, but I bought two of the three.

 Still, the site that really got me thinking about algorithms was Pandora.  Last March, Pandora started providing personalized soundtracks to anyone subscribing to Pandora Premium.  Each soundtrack is based on a mood, and they claim that their “in-house curation team” (which, let’s be honest, is definitely an algorithm) will choose songs just for you.  It is updated each week on Wednesday, and you can specify the mood you want.  I picked happiness. 


So, can their algorithm make me happy?  Actually, it does a pretty good job.  Each week, they serve up a combination of high-energy songs, some recent, but also lots of old stuff from when I was in high school.  In other words, the Backstreet Boys are back.  And since music is basically a time machine, when I hear those songs I’m back on a school bus riding to a cross country meet with my round metal lunch tin full of CDs perched on my lap.  It is 1999, I don’t know what my credit score is because I don’t have one, and life is just a little more carefree than it is now that I’m an adult.

 So, maybe that’s the answer: algorithms can make us happy!  They can figure out what we already like, or what we used to like, scramble it up so that it feels random and new each week, and make us feel known and understood, like the in-house curation team really gets us.  We can say, “I want it that way”, and then groove to the music.

But before I settle on that answer, I want to indulge in a little more nostalgia.  The CD collection in my metal lunch tin contained pop music, of course, but there was other stuff too, stuff that no algorithm would have ever found for me.  At one point, I was doing a project on South Africa, and my teacher told me to research music from that country, so I rode my bike down to Holland CD (a brick and mortar store) and asked them if they had anything.  They sold me a CD of the choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  I also had some CDs that were given to me as gifts, including a collection of 1,000 years of sacred music (starting with a Gregorian chant), given to me by my parents.  And then there was the CD of contemporary Christian music (by a band whose name I don’t remember) that landed in my lap when I was in chapel and the pastor started tossing CDs out into the crowd in an attempt to connect with the youth. 

 None of those CDs made their way into my regular rotation or gained me any popularity points.  They didn’t fit the curatorial criteria of teenagers in the early aughts, and they wouldn’t show up in any of my Pandora stations now.  But they existed, and in owning them I had some sense of the geographical and temporal narrowness of the rest of my collection.  As they jangled around in the lunchbox, they hinted to me that I might be living in a bubble.

 One of the most frightening aspects of our algorithm-filled world is that we don’t get very many of these hints.  We only see the things that the algorithms pick for us, and so we start to think that our bubble is all there is.  In the wake of the unexpected result of the 2016 election, many liberals, myself included, were shocked.  We didn’t see the people who supported Donald Trump, at least not very clearly, because our social media feeds were full of support for Hillary Clinton.  This is because our social media algorithms pay attention to what we click on.  Recently I used a Google Chrome extension called PolitEcho to create a chart of the political leanings of the people who show up most in my Facebook newsfeed. While I have friends on both sides of the political spectrum, the posts that show up in my newsfeed the most are all from my liberal friends because those are the ones I tend to click on. 

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 In fact, the only time during the run-up to the election that I thought maybe Trump had a chance was when I talked to my sister in Michigan on the phone and she told me how many Trump signs she had seen around the state.  She also told me about a couple people I had known and liked growing up who she was confident were planning to vote for Trump.  For a brief, bubble-popping moment, I wondered if I wasn’t seeing the whole picture, but then I said goodbye and forgot about it.

 All of this leads me to wonder if we need to step away from the algorithms and do something both radically new and embarrassingly old-fashioned: ask another person in real life for a recommendation.  See what newspaper articles your dad has been reading lately.  Let a librarian help you find a book.  Listen to your roommate’s music.  Go shopping with your little sister and try on an outfit she thinks would look good on you.  If you’re really feeling brave, talk to someone at the edge of your social group, someone whose perspectives tend to be different from your own.  Let them suggest the next movie you watch or podcast you subscribe to.  In other words, recognize that you already have an in-house curatorial team.  You don’t have to agree with them all the time, and in fact you probably shouldn’t, but they are the real people in your life whose opinions you will bump up against eventually anyway.  And unlike algorithms, many of them genuinely care about your happiness. 


Most of us, if we think about Giacomo Casanova at all, think about his reputation for seducing women.  Calling someone “a Casanova” is not a compliment, and I’ve never been particularly interested in knowing the details of his life.  So, this summer, when I arrived at Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure, and Power in the 18th Century, on view at the Museum of Fine Art Boston, I thought, “Well, it’s a big exhibit.  Check it out even if it isn’t really your thing.”

The first gallery of the exhibition contained a series of Canaletto’s cheerful paintings of the canals of Venice, where Casanova was born.  In them, I saw a crisp, sunny version of Venice. Imbued with a sense of optimism and industry, these paintings radiate energy, and you can almost hear the gondoliers shouting and smell the fresh fish dinners being prepared inside.

Canaletto,  View of the Ducal Palace in Venice,  before 1755, Oil on canvas

Canaletto, View of the Ducal Palace in Venice, before 1755, Oil on canvas

The next gallery introduced a more mysterious aspect of Venetian culture: masks.  Eighteenth century Venice was rigidly hierarchical, and upper class Venetians did not associate with the lower classes.  People wore masks to hide their identity and social class, especially during the carnival festivities before Lent.  In the absence of actual equality, masks allowed them to relax and have a good time together without the risk of literally losing face.  Masks were also the norm in state-sponsored casinos, called Ridotti, and all but the wealthiest guests were obligated to wear masks when they played poker.

Francesco Guardi,  Ladies and Gentlemen in Carnival Costume in the Ridotto, Venice,  1712-1793, Oil on canvas

Francesco Guardi, Ladies and Gentlemen in Carnival Costume in the Ridotto, Venice, 1712-1793, Oil on canvas

Casanova himself was familiar with the concept of hiding behind a mask.  In his memoir, Story of My Life, he asked, “Why should I put on a mask before my dear reader?”  And then he proceeded to chronicle, with shocking candor, stories of his travels through Europe, including many stories of incidents which we would now consider sexual misconduct.  The remaining galleries of the exhibition brought to life these conquests, with paintings of both the places he visited and the women he wooed.


Before the exhibition came to Boston, it was on display in both Fort Worth and San Francisco.  When it went up in those cities, it had a different title, Casanova: The Seduction of Europe.   But then the #metoo movement came, and, seemingly overnight, our culture shifted.  Stories of powerful men and the women they mistreated were suddenly everywhere.  Masks were torn off, and men who had previously enjoyed positive reputations found themselves perfecting the art of the public apology and stepping down from their prestigious positions.  A cheery line about a powerful man seducing Europe no longer felt right, so the exhibition’s title was changed to Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure, and Power in the 18th Century.

I used to think of masks as being primarily about the wearers.   I thought, “They wear masks because they don’t want us to know who they are.”  As I walked through the galleries, though, I began to wonder if there’s more to it than that.  When the #metoo movement exposed powerful men who had mistreated women, the accused men were very uncomfortable, but as a woman watching all the apologies, I was also uncomfortable.  I wanted to go back to the time when Al Franken was a funny guy from Minnesota who became a respected senator.  I wanted to think that stories of harassment were rare.  Seeing the ugliness exposed was cathartic and healthy, but it was also hard.  

Perhaps this is why I keep thinking about the Venetian masks.  Those dark, pointy-nosed, multicolored, little masks look strange, but they made everyone comfortable.  For a while, when you wore one, you could socialize with the people you would ordinarily snub.  The masks relieved both the poor and the wealthy from the burden of their social class.  Everyone could enter the glittering world of parties without the discomfort of being seen. 

Arguably, if your primary goals are to be comfortable, have a good time, and never change, wearing a mask and asking others to do so as well is the right move.  Most of us, though, want a little bit more than that.  We want to solve problems like sexual harassment in the workplace and income inequality.  We want to have friends who know us for who we are.  We want to feel confident that the people in authority over us are genuine and honest.  We want a world in which we see each other face to face.

The price of this, of course, is some discomfort.  I remember learning in college that the word confrontation literally means “with forehead”, since “frons” is the Latin for forehead.  Today, confrontation has a somewhat negative connotation, and I wouldn’t like it if someone described me as a confrontational person.   At its best, though, confrontation is about facing difficult things.

And that is what I hope for myself and for my students.  I hope we confront new ideas that stretch our thinking.  I hope we confront new people who seem totally different from us.  I hope we confront things that seem ordinary or even ugly at first glance but reveal their inner beauty over time as we learn more about them.  And, yes, I hope we confront some things that call on our sense of justice, that demand we take action to make the world better.

As I walked out of the exhibit in Boston, I realized that I still wasn’t that interested in Casanova as a person, but I was interested in his world because it’s not that different from our own.  Fakeness and cover-ups are commonplace in our culture.  You can crop the ugly parts of your life out of your Instagram posts.  You can show up in a car you could never afford to buy.  If you’re important enough, you can write an op-ed for the New York Times and not sign your name to it.  Sometimes we recognize these masks for what they are, but other times we get lured into the fantasy, especially if it is a fantasy that makes us feel happy or comfortable.  Like the Venetians, we can choose to be distracted by the glitter and buzz and outward appearance of things, or we can look more deeply into the reality of things.  We can take to heart the words of Shakespeare, who, as usual, said it best.

All that glitters is not gold.
— William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
Drawing of Giacomo Casanova by his brother Francesco

Drawing of Giacomo Casanova by his brother Francesco

Doppelgangers, Faces, and Finding Ourselves

A new feature on the Google Arts and Culture app allows users to take a selfie and then find paintings in museums containing faces like their own.  The appeal of a feature like this obvious.  Take a selfie (fun), get a light dose of art history (fun), post your pictures on social media to get your friends’ reactions (potentially fun).

It’s a little bit like taking a personality test in that for a relatively small investment (snap one picture or answer a couple dozen multiple choice questions) you get a clue into the great, big, unanswerable question of “Who am I?”

Naturally, I went for it.  And, to be honest, I was hoping for some powerful, interesting women from history to come up.  Maybe an abolitionist, or a suffragette.  If I got a member of a royal family, maybe it would be a woman who had ruled a country for several years while her husband was ill.  Maybe it would be a self-portrait by an artist, who, like me, loved oil paint and painted herself with piercing self-awareness and insight.

Fortunately, the app loads quickly, so I didn’t have time to dream up any more ideas before reality set in.  It turns out that my two top results (and I did try multiple selfies in an attempt to game the system) are Clara Stillman and the Marchioness of Miramon.


Who were these women?  The Marchioness’ first name was Therese.  She was a French aristocrat living in the nineteenth century with two children, some fancy dresses, and a lovely chateau.  I’m sure she was also a complex and interesting individual, but I couldn’t find much evidence for that.  Best I can tell, she was just a wealthy woman whom James Tissot painted beautifully. 

James Tissot,  Portrait of the Marquis and Marchioness of Miramon and Their Children , 1865, Oil on canvas

James Tissot, Portrait of the Marquis and Marchioness of Miramon and Their Children, 1865, Oil on canvas

On to Clara Stillman.  Clara lived during the same period as Therese, but she was an American living north of New York City in Cornwall on Hudson.  She was the sister of the financier James Stillman, and of Bessie Stillman, who is standing in front of her in this painting by Abbott H. Thayer.  Not much is known about either of the sisters, although some sources say that one of them was ill at the time of the painting.

Abbott Thayer,  The Sisters,  1884, Oil on canvas

Abbott Thayer, The Sisters, 1884, Oil on canvas

Not terribly interesting results, but they reflect the reality of what we see in many museums: pictures of wealthy Europeans and European-Americans who could afford to ensure that their faces would not be forgotten by history.  My actual historical doppelganger was probably less moneyed and carried my likeness through her ordinary life silently, never having the means to become immortalized.  In fact, there’s a chance my historical doppelganger didn’t own a mirror and wouldn’t recognize me as carrying her likeness even if we were to meet.  The level of familiarity we have with our faces today is something of a historical oddity.

Still, I got a convincing result, and both Clara and Therese do look a little bit like me.  But what if I weren’t white?  What if I were among the many people of color who have used the app and discovered that the algorithm can’t really find anyone who looks like them.  Some people have suggested that the app itself is racist, but that doesn’t get to the core of the issue.  The reason the app can’t find a convincing museum doppelganger for many people of color is that museums don’t have diverse images of people in their collections.  No algorithm can find something that isn’t there to be found, and so some users have found that their “closest” match is a face that barely resembles their own.

And because the app is a viral phenomenon, users have taken to social media to point out the problem.  This tweet by Alyanna Tenorio illustrates the problem well.  Beneath an image of four not-terribly-convincing likenesses the app found for her, she wrote “Asymmetrical me matched to white, Asian, African, and Hispanic faces lol. Thanks, Google Arts and Culture.”

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Thinking about all this takes me back to one of my first experiences with a doppelganger.  When I was about eight or nine, I looked like a sandy-haired Anne Frank, and the likeness was significant enough that people used to remark on it.  I grew up in Holland, Michigan, which has a large Dutch population and many people who look very like each other.  So, when one of my childhood friends said to me, “You know, you don’t look Dutch.  You look like Anne Frank,” I didn’t know how to react.  I already knew that I looked like Anne Frank; what I was confused by was the fact that my friend didn’t know Anne Frank was from Amsterdam and thus much more Dutch than either one of us.


It was only later, when my orthodontist encouraged me to get my nose fixed sooner rather than later (as if leaving it in its current, vaguely Jewish-looking state was out of the question), that I realized what she meant.  I didn’t look Dutch to her because I didn’t look stereotypically Dutch.  I looked just a little bit other. 

Most people have heard some version of, “You don’t look like…” at some point in their lives.  Maybe it was, “You don’t look like a cheerleader.”  Or, “You don’t look like you’d be good at math.”  Or, “You don’t look like you’re from here.”  There’s a sense in which all of us walk around applying algorithms to the people we see and making judgments.  We see people who don’t look presidential or who don’t look nice or don’t look reliable - as if these things could be written on a face.

It’s fun to look at faces of the past and think about who we might have been, but it’s more important, I think, to look at people today and reignite our curiosity about who they might become.  Which one of my students is going to be a novelist?  A lead parent?  A politician?  A homemaker?  A journalist?  A physicist?  Recognizing that I don’t know the answer to these questions lifts a bit of a burden from me, and, I hope, allows me to actually see them and not just the stories that my culture has taught me to read in their faces.

Blue Christmas

Clothed in her usual shade of ultramarine, Mary kneels rigidly over a thin baby Jesus placed directly on the ground with a mere scattering of hay to soften the hard dirt floor under him.  Exotic, multicolored angels, some hovering weightlessly above, others kneeling on the ground, make their way in toward the center.  Shepherds, gesturing recklessly, enter from the right. Joseph, A little further out, echoes Mary’s stiff reverence.  And in the left and right wings of this triptych, members of the wealthy Portinari family, the family that paid for the altarpiece to be painted, pray alongside their patron saints.   

Hugo van der Goes,  Portinari Altarpiece,  c. 1475, oil on wood

Hugo van der Goes, Portinari Altarpiece, c. 1475, oil on wood

There are paintings that I admire simply because they so utterly exceed what I imagine to be possible in a work of art.  Through sheer virtuosity, the artist makes me care about what he has made.  Hugo van der Goes’ Portinari Altarpiece is one of these paintings.  The lifelike details in the faces and hands; the way the cloth falls into angular, medieval, not-quite-believable folds; the stiff (and yet very real!) angels with wings like parrots; the massive scale of the overall piece – these are the things that make me stand awestruck when I’m looking at the painting. 

Hugo van der Goes, detail from the  Portinari Altarpiece,  c. 1475, oil on wood

Hugo van der Goes, detail from the Portinari Altarpiece, c. 1475, oil on wood

Until recently, however, I hadn’t known the troubling backstory to Hugo van der Goes’ life.  Paranoid and convinced that he belonged to the damned, this Belgian artist maintained a miserable existence.  Though he was not a monk, van der Goes lived and painted in a monastery near Brussels where the brothers tried to calm his fears.  Their efforts are depicted in a nineteenth century painting called the Madness of Hugo van der Goes by Emile Wauters.  In this painting, a nervous, tortured van der Goes wrings his hands while cherubic choir boys sing to settle his anxious spirit.  Working four hundred years after van der Goes, Wauters couldn’t have had first-hand knowledge of what it was like to be a mentally ill artist in a medieval monastery, but the image nevertheless has a level of authenticity that makes it memorable.

Emile Wauters,  The Madness of Hugo van der Goes,  1872, Oil on canvas

Emile Wauters, The Madness of Hugo van der Goes, 1872, Oil on canvas

The cliché of the anguished artist is a tricky one.  On one hand, it is frequently overplayed and romanticized in Hollywood depictions of artists, enough so that the relatively mundane working habits of most artists come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the reality of this profession.  On the other hand, there have been many famous artists throughout history who embodied both extraordinary talent and terrible emotional suffering.  The cliché is based, at least a little bit, in truth.

Perhaps the artist best known for these extremes is Vincent van Gogh.  Incidentally, van Gogh was familiar with the story of Hugo van der Goes.  Van Gogh mentioned Emile Wauters’ painting of him in some of his letters to his brother Theo, and, based on what he said in those letters, it seems van Gogh related to the experience of van der Goes.  Sadly, the trajectories of the two men’s lives were parallel in at least one sense: they both died early of suicide.

If we don’t immediately see the darkness of van der Goes’ life reflected in his exquisite altarpiece, it may be because we don’t anticipate trouble lurking in a Christmas painting.  We see what we want to see, and we want to see something purely joyous, a theatrical celebration of the birth of Christ.  There are, however, some more bleak elements in the painting that point toward its creator’s melancholy.

Take a look at the sky and the landscape in the background.  There’s a coolness to these areas that can’t be completely explained by the chilly, northern climate in which van der Goes worked.  The bare trees and heavy clouds create a somber mood, and the tiny scenes acted out in these areas – the journey of the magi, the angels’ appearance to the shepherds, and the trip Mary and Joseph made to Bethlehem – are played out against an austere landscape.

Hugo van der Goes, detail from the  Portinari Altarpiece,  c. 1475, oil on wood

Hugo van der Goes, detail from the Portinari Altarpiece, c. 1475, oil on wood

The still life in the foreground is also a reminder of more serious things, since it is a reference to the death of Christ.  The bundle of wheat symbolizes the bread of the Eucharist. The white irises are for purity, the orange lilies are for the passion of Christ, and the red carnations are for the bloodied nails of the crucifixion.  It may look pretty, but the still life is there as an ominous reminder of what awaited the sweet baby in the painting. 

Hugo van der Goes, detail from the  Portinari Altarpiece,  c. 1475, oil on wood

Hugo van der Goes, detail from the Portinari Altarpiece, c. 1475, oil on wood

Then there’s the depiction of Satan in the form of a dragon. Peeking out from under the skirt of Saint Margaret, a nasty brown creature rears its head.  Saint Margaret is frequently portrayed with a dragon because of the legend that she was swallowed by Satan in that form, but, this is a particularly vicious-looking version of the beast.  And so, once again, the painting isn’t just about Jesus' birth.  Death and the devil are hiding in the shadows of the pretty clothes and fluttering angels.

Hugo van der Goes, detail from the  Portinari Altarpiece,  c. 1475, oil on wood

Hugo van der Goes, detail from the Portinari Altarpiece, c. 1475, oil on wood

To what extent did van der Goes’ temperament and illness shape the way he portrayed this scene?  We don’t know whether it was his fear of being among the damned or the theology he learned in the monastery or some other factor that had the biggest impact on his depiction of the nativity.  One thing, however is clear: part of what makes this painting great is its emotional complexity.  Joy and fear, love and disgust, holiness and humility – all of them are present here, and the turbulence of those extremes was also in the life of Hugo van der Goes.  Visitors to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence who look his work today may not guess at all that he experienced, but they almost certainly sense that there is more to this altarpiece than the technical mastery that first drew me to admire it.