When a “three star” rating fails to mean anything

We’re all accustomed to the “five star” rating system for movies and products. Most published reviewers use stars, or something similar, and we as consumers get to use them on Netflix and Amazon and other web services. Obviously a few stars can’t tell the whole story, or we wouldn’t add or read any longer written-out reviews; but there are a couple of cases where this type of rating system actually fails us completely.

It occurred to me while using Netflix streaming, and rating the shows I watched. These ratings would be totally inconsequential in life except for the fact that the Netflix computer system uses those ratings to make recommendations and give ratings for the movies I haven’t seen, based on what it thinks I will think of them! Even that might seem like a petty concern, until you think about how Google uses similar systems to shape and steer our search engine results, and about how deeply Google’s infrastructure has become embedded in our daily lives. What appears in a search, or in an Android-based app, can determine what we buy, what we study, who we believe, and even how we vote. Families and even nations get ripped apart by political and religious differences, and this gets exacerbated by the “facts” we believe and base our decisions on, which nowadays are often the facts we learned by searching the internet and reading the news and commentary sources delivered to us by search engine algorithms! The extreme cases are probably not spurred by a three-star rating directly, but when we base our trust on over-simplifications of highly complex subjects, we risk making some very bad choices.

I really enjoy some trashy or cheesy movies, where there’s no question that it’s a “bad movie”, but I might love it anyway. If a movie should get only one star for being a total turkey, but it should get five stars for how much I enjoyed it, what to do? On the flip side, I see many movies that fit the description of things I like generally, but they may be disappointing or even terrible in the specific case. Bollywood epics and science fiction are good examples—the category as a whole is charming and fun for me, but four out of five of the specific movies turn out to be awful dreck. If I give them a one or two star rating, Netflix will denigrate any other movies fitting a similar pattern. If I give them a high rating, to encourage delivery of similar content that I might happen to like better, it’s dishonest: how can I give four or five stars to something I didn’t enjoy at all? Plus, later on somebody may ask me my opinion of that movie, and I won’t remember whether I actually loved or hated it.

All that remains to us is a three-star rating. Everything gets three stars, average, I guess I liked it OK. And the master computer decides for me that everything else is average, OK, neither good nor bad. The world is reduced to grey and beige, a strip mall where all food tastes pretty much the same, and all clothes look pretty much the same, and one pop song sounds almost exactly like the last one. Who wants to live in that world?

For a long time I have held to the idea that everything in life is not black and white, but instead somewhere on a wide spectrum of shades of grey, and that view has plenty of value to it still. But now it occurs to me that the problem with “black and white” thinking is really that things in that worldview can only be black OR white, not black AND white. For every way we see a subject, there are almost certainly other aspects to it that are far different from the one we had already fixated on as “the truth”. We need to recognize that not only does every person, thought, and situation fit somewhere on a grand continuum between extremes, but they have many different qualities that may even seem -at first- to be contradictions.

We’d do well to keep this in mind the next time we find ourselves caught in an us-versus-them argument. Believing the other guy is nothing but a liberal, a conservative, Muslim, gay, or any other easy label, is like believing a three-star rating is the whole truth. There is probably a side of them that matches your own views more closely than you realize, more closely than any simplified star rating even ALLOWS us to realize. We lose sight of the broader truth of the other person’s humanity, their complexity, and the dreams we all share.

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