The world according to algorithms

I wrote this post over three years ago! Gosh – kinda of more scary now. Yikes.


My personal, trusted search agent, my husband, cut out an article for me about DemandMedia, an innovator in offering a service for web owners to pull algorithm driven, highly moentizable content – fast and cheap.

Then a few minutes later I read about and how it uses an algorithm to mine Twitter feeds for deals on clothes, electronics and services.

I began to notice a pattern.

The next day I read about new search methods that were smarter because of, you guessed it, algorithmic technology.

Now with a thud, I realized, a bit to my horror, that algorithmic logic drives a big part of our lives. It drives our searches and, as a result, what we learn about. It drives which ads we see and crunches through a formula to present us with the most relevant, contextual based ad possible. It filters what offers we see or don’t see online.  And the ever iterative algorithmic engines can even choose our future mates.

I even think some algorithm predicted the end of the world to happen sometime in 2012 *sigh*.

It then blindingly dawned on me (better late than never) that my perception of the world was being shaped by algorithms – aggregation of data points. I was taken aback by the fact that my world perception was not formed as I thought by my experiences with real people – but by mechanical machines spitting out numerical answers to questions I had not yet asked.

I realize I see the world through number colored lens. I am not sure I like the effect.

This shouldn’t be bothering me – but it does.

Judy Shapiro

2 Responses

  1. “I was taken aback by the fact that my world perception was not formed as I thought by my experiences with real people – but by mechanical machines spitting out numerical answers to questions I had not yet asked.”

    If “taken aback” is your softer form of “worried,” then you should be “frightened,” because the situation is much worse than you realize.

    First of all, numbers are not the limitation of algorithms (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but let’s not under-scope the topic.

    Second of all, even before the second era of computing, algorithms played a dominate force in humanity’s day to day life, success or failure. Boiling the water, tracking the prey, salting the meat, skinning the catch, luring or winning a mate — these and countless other algorithms of the brain helped keep us alive, healthy, fed and procreating.

    What the second era introduced was the mechanical device and “decision at a distance.” (If you aren’t familiar with the role “action at a distance” played in a young Einstein’s life, I encourage you to look it up.) As a proud member of the gadgeterati I’m pleased to report the “mechanical device” piece of the puzzle is not the problem (thank goodness, because there’s no taking that genie out of our pockets! ).

    The trouble is the inherent limitation of “decision at a distance.” You shouldn’t be concerned by the role algorithms play in your world, but you should be frightened by the role you play in those algorithms, or don’t.

    A century or so from now when historians close the book on this time, they’ll either herald it as the dawn of the third era of computing or they’ll lament that the sugar high masquerading as nutrition effect of 100,000+ smartphone app developers out producing a few hundred who make cell phones led to a sense of satisfaction, delight and relief instead of to the deeper wisdom – “INFO belongs in the hands of the people.”

    As long as someone “at a distance” controls the nature and structure of the information your computing devices manage and the whens, hows and whys of that (aka the algorithms) you remain a digital serf at the mercy of those feudal lords who do.

    In fact, the original serfs had an important advantage over you. They knew they were serfs.

    I’m an optimist. I have a clear vision of the third era of computing and a strategy to make it happen. I want to make it much more difficult for future historians to find something to lament about this time. How about you?


    • Hi Dan –

      My simplistic “gut” concern is now a full blown worry since your point are well taken.

      In this case – the prospect of becoming a “digital serf” doesnt sound so wonderful.

      Between Facebook owning my social graph and Google owning the rest of my digital self – I feel rather like I am flapping in the digital breeze.

      Not sure I like the sensation. Time will tell.

      Tx Dan.

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