I’m reminded on a daily basis of the prevalence of algorithms, since every time that I check on how well one of my books is doing on Amazon or B&N before long I get an email or an internet add suggesting that I buy that book. Then, too, because I live where I can’t just run out and buy a decent shirt, or coat, or even office supplies [since our sole office supply store lost its least ten months ago],and because I have to do that shopping online, I get more “targeted” ads suggesting I buy more of what I just bought.
All of this makes little sense, because I don’t need to buy more copies of the books I wrote. Nor am I likely to buy more shirts after I just purchased some… or more office supplies right after I’ve stocked up.
Now… occasionally I do buy other books, but the recommendations I get from Amazon based on my purchases are laughable. All of this suggests that, while algorithms are being used to extrapolate from my purchases what I might be interested in buying, they’re not doing a very good job… and they’re just irritating.
If that were the only problem with algorithms, I wouldn’t be writing about them.
Algorithms govern the way in which our computers present almost everything to us, from particular ways of seeing the world, reproducing stereotypes, and even strengthening our existing views of the world by tailoring news based on our past reading or searches. In essence, algorithms narrow our view of the world without warning and without providing any sense of what we may be missing.
As ScienceDaily points out, “An algorithm that claims to spot beauty and tell you which selfies to delete implies we should trust technology more than ourselves to make aesthetic choices. Such algorithms also carry assumptions that beauty can be defined as universal and timeless, and can be easily reduced to a particular combination of data.”
Add to that the idea that everything is reducible to data, which in turn affects the way people perceive their environment and everyday relations. This also explains the growing popularity of wearable devices that track aspects of our physical activity and health, then analyze and relay them back to us, directly affecting our behavior.
And last, but certainly not least, there is the fact that there are a host of algorithms that companies and governments use to track the movements and purchases of every cell phone user. A New York Times story in 2012 showed that, using such data, researchers were able to use this data to predict where people would be 24 hours later to within 20 meters.
In 1999, David Brin, both a scientist and an SF writer, predicted the demise of privacy in his book, The Transparent Society. Guess what? We’re there.