Beware the Stars

We see them everywhere – five in a row, fine outlines, sometimes colored, sometimes not. We rely on the stars so much for guidance, and yet they are flawed. It is good to remember, as we follow them more and more, that the language of the stars is imperfect.

I refer, of course, to the 5-point rating system you see on every damn thing. Amazon, Goodreads, Netflix, Mocpages, Yelp, any place where users rate stuff. Very useful – it’s easy to pick a hotel or an after-market phone charger if you can see that one, perhaps cheaper, gets 2.5 stars from 50 users while the other, perhaps more expensive, gets 4.8 stars from 352 users. Very nice. Means you can spend less time dithering, make a choice and get on with life. Good good. They are among the million tiny tools we’ve created to express our selves, which reflectively are changing our behavior.

Dig this.

Netflix, and probably many other services, doesn’t just show you the star rating a film gets from users. It also skews the star rating toward the rating it thinks you’ll give it, based on based on how you’ve rated other films. So that’s cool, if the thing were actually psychic (and in fact psychic predictions would only work if our psyches were immutable. They aren’t. We re-write our personalities constantly.)

So I wanted to watch something. My wife was out, so it was purely me me meeee with the remote. I wanted to watch something geeky, spaceships and monsters and explosions and stuff. But I wanted it to be good, too. So instead of watching something, I spent forever flipping through Netflix, finding sci-fis and geek shit that looked good, then being turned off because the star rating was so low. I wanted to geek out, but I didn’t want to waste time on awful vomit-on-screen.

Finally I snapped out of it. “Who am I? Where did I go? Who is this person whom Netflix has made? He be not me!”
I like geek movies. Geek movies have always gotten low reviews from the general public.But I never cared before, back when I was grabbing stuff off the rack at the video rental store (yes) without star-ratings to guide me. I can handle shoddy acting and cheesey effects if the big idea is good and bold enough. Or sometimes I’m in the mood for visual kaboomboom, and don’t mind if the story is shite. I would take risks, try strange things, and there was joy in the discovery of amazing new films, and joy in the discovery of truly, hilariously awful tripe.

But now, oh now, having grown comfortable and complacent in the shelter of five little stars telling me which path to take, I awake and realize that I am a risk-averse herd creature, unwilling to try new things, fully trusting that if the machine says a film is only worth 1 star, then surely I won’t like it.

I actively liked B movies, independent weirdo films, you know, the kind that tend to get bad reviews. I still like them, and yet I follow the tides and nudges of ratings nowadays, shying away from films the masses have deemed unworthy. Think about it. If they came out today, Netflix would probably give Silent Running, The Quiet Earth, and Robot Jox low ratings, and I would never watch them. Okay, maybe not The Quiet Earth – that’s a quality film. But definitely Robot Jox. And the thing is I like all those films, and Blood and Donuts, Starchaser and all those other wacked-out fringe films born from passion, grit, fun and that  thrilling sense of “Who cares what critics will say? I’ll make the film anyway, cuz I wanna.”

The machine has re-shaped my behavior.
No, I rephrase this, for the emphasis is important.
I have allowed the machine to re-shape my behavior.

I mourn my lost self. And then I resurrect.

The stars have a language. Their message is most audible to those who are predictable and so, straining to listen, we become predictable.

The moral of my warning – eff the stars. Watch “Robot Overlords.” Or whatever. Take a risk on something. Maybe you’ll find something awesome, or maybe you’ll waste a couple of hours and never get them back. In any case, it’s better than spending the time flicking through Netflix’s offerings, looking for something the machine thinks you’ll like, based off of who it thinks you are, and what everyone else says they like. Do not forget that everyone else is not you.


And, yes, “Robot Overlords” is a pretty sweet film. Not gonna blow your mind or anything, but it’s tons of fun, and is full of mild British vulgarity, which is the best kind of vulgarity. “Ballbags!”

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