There are hidden codes that we don’t notice. They make life easy. Built into the platforms and apps that control our lives. Working away in the background.
Invisible tech has become so embedded in our lives that we take it for granted. Don’t see their footprints.
They are the mathematical instructions for solving problems or performing a task in the codes of software. Their name? Algorithms.
We perform searches, check out our Facebook stream and watch YouTube videos without much conscious thought to what is happening behind the scenes or how that content showed up.
Cars are summoned to our front door with an app. Certain friends updates show up in your Facebook stream. Books are recommended for you.
What are algorithms?
In the past it was only ever discussed in maths classes and lectures. The rise of software and use of technology has brought it more into public consciousness and widespread use.
But we hardly notice them, but what are they?
According to Pewinternet.org “Algorithms are instructions for solving a problem or completing a task. Recipes are algorithms, as are math equations. Computer code is algorithmic. The internet runs on algorithms”
They are the lines of mathematical code that can be your servant….or master.
The rise and rise of algorithms
The beauty at the the birth of social media networks was their simplicity. They flowed past you unfiltered.
Twitter was a distilled stream of unfettered consciousness. Facebook was a flowing page of diverse ideas and people and some sat outside your tent of ideas and interests.
But things have changed.
The need to make money from the platforms meant that algorithms needed to be programmed. To reduce the organic reach that excited marketers, writers and entrepreneurs. As marketers reaching your target audience now means you need to understand how they work and pay to use them.
They are required to make sense of the huge amount of data the the digital world serves up every day. But they are meant to be working for us and “user experience” is now the Google mantra for its search algorithms.
Today marketing mastery has become an art and science and an ongoing battle of the algorithms.
Tim O’Reilly in his latest book “WTF? What’s The Future and Why It’s Up to Us” uses the analogy of the myths of the Arabian Djiins. They can be coerced into fulfilling our wishes but often artfully reinterpret the wish for their masters maximum disadvantage.
So….are the current algorithms serving us or denying humanity.
The answer is yes to both.
Why do we need algorithms?
The amount of data the average human is confronted with every day means that algorithms make it easier to find what we want. To put some perspective on the volumes we only need to look at some of the facts about social media, data creation and the size of the global Internet.
In 2017 these are some of the data numbers according to thenextweb.com.
- 3.8 billion Internet users
- 3.4 billion mobile Internet users
- 21.9 billion text messages are sent every day
- 2.9 billion people on social media platforms
- 5.97 billion hours of YouTube are watched every day
- 4.3 billion Facebook messages are posted each day
- 67 million images posted on Instagram every 24 hours
- 269 billion emails sent each day
Making sense of this explosion of data to make our lives easier is why algorithms are essential.
How are algorithms used in our digital lives?
So what are some of the way theses equations and code play out in our digital world that delights and confounds.
- Online dating – the equations within these platforms are used to find the best dating matches.
- Amazon – products or books you might like based on past activity and other secret codes.
- Search – Content and information you want to find.
- Social – People you want to hear from or see.
- Emails – Gmail now uses an algorithm that sorts it into tabs and also sends it automatically to spam based on its filters.
- GPS – Help us navigate a city or find our way to a hotel.
- Choose a restaurant – Reviews on Yelp or on Tripadvisor.
The new reality is that doing without a Google search or a GPS app would be something that most of us would now not tolerate. Algorithms are becoming as essential as electricity.
But there is a dark side
But are the algorithms that make sense of all the information that is created and passed onto our consciousness serving us or controlling us?
There are dark sides to their use. Left unfettered the codes can be used against us by corporations and governments.
- To make prices for items higher for one targeted demographic versus another. It is where data is used against buyers – One example was where the data was used to increase prices of Mac users vs Pc users.
- In the insurance industry it is being used to increase premiums and can even be used to deny insurance.
- In the employment market is is used to abuse the hiring and use of labor – Walmart has been known to use it to reduce wages and minimize hours and costs. To even ensure you don’t receive medical benefits.
- To control the ideas and thoughts of the masses.
But one aspect that isn’t discussed much are the echo chambers where we are served content that the social networks, platforms and apps deem to be in our interest.
The echo chambers
As a global traveler, adventurer and citizen I see the world as a place of immense diversity. Of infinite possibility and opportunity.
But if you never leave your country or stray far from your own community the bubbles we are wrapped in can lead to mono thinking and calcified thoughts and beliefs. In extreme cases it can amplify hate and division.
Truth and reality are often just the creations of different points of view based on what your parents taught you and your community passed on to you.
Immersing yourself in a wide range of experiences and being exposed to a wide range of ideas will help keep an open mind as entrenched beliefs and paradigms are constantly challenged. Sometimes to listen to and observe as outsider provides moments and slivers of inspiration and magic.
Innovation requires diversity of ideas to thrive.
Is technology amplifying sameness?
The bubbles and echo chambers of ideas and beliefs has been amplified by online tribes that are enabled by technology. These are the algorithms that serve up what technology thinks we need or want. Some special interest groups understand its power.
But being trapped in these can reduce diversity of thought, ideas and creativity.
In an insightful TED talk titles “The Revolutionary Power of Diverse Thought” Elif Shafak poses some insights into where we sit today as fake news, intolerance and parallel realities collide. We see tribes of opposing thought take up cudgels of words that bruise and sometimes destroy people’s lives.
But the optimist in her believes that “We learn silence form the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant and kindness from the unkind” – Khalil Gibran
We maybe can’t escape the algorithms but learn how to use them to serve us. By observing them and know how they work. Or by just being aware.
They are not going away
Algorithms are here to stay. They can help make quick decisions and simplify our lives as our world becomes more complex.
But we need to make sure that they don’t become echo chambers of intolerance or stifle creativity.
So hang out with strange people, read on different topics, listen to both sides of the political debate. Hang out with younger people, older people and creative types with different views.
Diversity is the key to providing contrast and depth to our sometimes cosseted existence.
“From populist demagogues we will learn the indispensability of democracy. From isolationists we will learn the need for global solidarity. From tribalists we learn the beauty of cosmopolitanism and the beauty of diversity” – Elif Shafak
Keep an open mind and make sure that the algorithms are not your bubbles that stifle you from being fully human.