The world according to algorithms

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

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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 Cheaptweet.com 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

http://twitter.com/judyshapiro

“It’s good to be open minded, just don’t let your brains fall out.”

I was reminded of this line, credited to my Grandmother Margit, when I spent a very interesting day last week at the Web 3.0 conference. So many smart people talking about how smart the Web will become.  I was overwhelmed at how little I really know about semantic technologies and data architectures.

But despite my infantile level understanding of these emerging technologies, I was struck by the seeming gap in all the talk. Nowhere could I find anyone talking much about how to make the next web more human by being more trusted.  Trust is the glue that holds society together in the real world and it should be the same in the web world too. But in the conference, you would be hard pressed to hear more than a passing homage to the idea of trust vis-à-vis the next gen web.

My Grandmother’s expression popped into my head probably because staying open about technology is easy for me. What’s harder is staying wary enough to maintain perspective to challenge the technology if/ when it veers off course or worse does not serve humanity. In the case of Web 3.0, I am trying hard to maintain perspective and not be seduced by all the glitz of the technology because our human need for things like trust could get sacrificed on the altar of technology if we are not careful.

Whew! Talk about being a drama queen. But it’s true. I see lots of great technology revolving around the evolving web without a lot of humanity factored in yet. There’s a lot at stake for all of us.

“And what”, you must be wondering at this point, “has this got to do with your Grandmother?” Simple. When I start to contemplate heady stuff like that, my Grandmother’s image usually makes her way into my mind because she was always able to inspire greatness in others. Therefore, permit me a brief digression so that  I can tell you a bit about her which will help you appreciate the power of her words.

My Grandmother was not typical in any way fathomable. She was a Chassidic Rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife), but if any of you think you have an idea of what an ultra-orthodox, rabbi’s wife might be like – I suggest you suspend those conceptions right now. She would blow them away.

For a starter, she was, without a doubt one of the most open minded people I ever knew. She was also, without a doubt, the spiritual leader of the community.  Her husband (the Rabbi) was the final authority in Jewish legal matters, but in every other way, my paternal Grandmother, Margit, was the pillar upon which the community rested. And we all knew it.

Second, one would think she be fairly limited in scope as to who she would interact with. On the contrary. She was the confidante of business leaders, heads of hospitals, politicians, entertainment personalities, religious leaders of all faiths.  She stayed open to all lifestyle and ideas.

Third, she was truly blind to a person’s background in every sense of the word. Everyone was equal in her eyes and the one who needed her help the most was the one that got her attention … every time.

Fourth, through sheer force of personality was able to save all eight of her children and herself while in the Bergen Belsen death camp. Her youngest child, my uncle, was only 3 years in the death camp and is only one of ten babies known to survive the camps.

It is hard to put a finger on her power, but it rested in the simplicity of her world view which rested on trust. She trusted in people. She trusted her God. She trusted her instincts. She understood that people come before religious dogma. She saw the best in you even when you had just done your worst. But mostly she understood that the weakness of the human heart can be strengthened through trust.

The power of this woman shaped many generations after her, myself included. From her I learned to give everyone the benefit of doubt. From her I learned how to refine my ability to grasp the essence of someone quickly and correctly. From her, I began to understand how precious life really is when she told a sad, bitter man who barely survived the war why she did not hate the world, it was because; “Mer hut niche kan berara” – Yiddish for “there is no choice”. She could not fathom a life filled with hate – it was simply not an option for her so she chose to have no choice in this matter. That is an act of will few are capable of. These were the lessons I learned from Margit.

So I am inspired by her to dedicate this effort to rename the next gen web, a.k.a. Web 3.0 etc to the Trust Web in dedication to hearts world over that understand the power to transform rests with the power to trust. The next gen Web can transform us in ways are truly paradigm-shifting and we must stay open to those possibilities.

Judy Shapiro

 

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