The mighty algorithm: a look back and forward

UPDATED December 2019

The algorithm. It’s a hot topic these days and there’s a lot to say about it. Algorithms affect nearly every part of our lives today, and they’re only going to get more pervasive in the years to come. Here’s a little background into algorithm history, how they’re used in our daily lives, and some tips on how we can monitor their influence on our decision making.

What is an algorithm?

At first glance, algorithm seems to be a pretty boring word. Traditionally belonging to the realm of mathematicians and scientists, it’s a Latinized form of the popular 9th century Persian mathematician and scholar Muhammad al-Khwarizmi, himself named after a region in modern-day Uzbekistan. For centuries his name was associated with numbers, and when his name became mixed with the Greek word for number (arithmos), the modern word algorithm was born. The word is broadly defined as a set of rules for solving a problem or making a decision. Sounds useful and harmless. So what’s the big deal? Why are terms like algorithmic accountability in the news today? What does a Persian mathematician have to do with my Facebook news feed or what shows Netflix recommends to me?

The Rise of Computers

To understand how algorithms became such a big thing, it helps to look at the rise of computing in general. Here I condense two hundred years of computer history into two paragraphs. Ready? Mechanical aids and the desire to automate where possible have been part of civilization since the ancient Greeks. In the 19th century, fueled by the industrial revolution, engineers began to produce programmable analog computers with mechanical parts that could be used for navigational computation such as predicting the tides or guiding torpedoes on submarines. By the early 20th century, analog computers slowly gave way to fully automatic digital computers with electronic circuits. Originally designed and used only by military, government, and academic institutions, computers became commercially available by the 1950s. From there, with the rise of integrated circuits and microprocessors, it was only a matter of time before the age of personal computing would begin in earnest in the late 1970s, fueled by the utopian belief that computers belonged in the hands of individuals instead of corporations and governments and that the personal computer would usher in a new era of freedom and community. Indeed, one of Apple’s earliest television ads introducing the Macintosh computer captured the spirit of this idea, showing a young woman throwing a sledgehammer into a screen depicting a totalitarian society.

As the number of computers in operation grew, so too did the number of connections and networks to share a growing amount of data. By 1990, the first web browser was introduced, giving users a central place to access and share information. Soon, computer scientists and entrepreneurs would see a pressing need not just to better organize the world wide web but to personalize it for computer users too. Using algorithms, a set of rules could be applied to content based on user data to produce a personalized experience of the web. But what began as a helpful tool for managing data and making it useful to us has slowly morphed into a powerful and influential method of behavior-shaping that may endanger our identity as human beings.

Invisible Force

Today, algorithms are employed behind the scenes to govern web searches, social media feeds, entertainment platforms, city crime maps, dating sites, trading floors, human resource departments, online retail, banking, insurance risk assessments, and much more. Here are some specific examples of algorithms in action. Streaming platform Netflix uses algorithms to suggest content you may like based on what you’ve watched. Target has used algorithms to predict when women are pregnant so they can send timely relevant coupons. Staples employs them to determine online pricing based on where customers are in relation to competitor stores. China recently launched a massive social credit system that uses algorithms to evaluate a citizen’s civic choices, debt history, and more to assign a personal rating that can affect a person’s ability to function in society, including getting a job, securing a loan, traveling, and more.

So what’s so bad about algorithms? Aren’t they helpful tools that enable us to make sense of the ocean of data that surrounds us? Sure, they can be helpful. But they can also be harmful. It really depends who’s in control and what the goal is. Reliance on algorithms also means reliance on the programmers and companies that create them. Being subject to the whims of a for-profit company that is guided by a worldview and mission that isn’t necessarily our own can erode our identity over time. One day, we may wake up to find we have more in common with the brainwashed citizenry of the totalitarian society depicted in Apple’s 1984 computer ad than with the fearless, vibrant young lady who runs in to crash the party.

One big problem with algorithms is that they take humans out of the equation. In the past, human knowledge was built the hard way – through trial and error, blood, sweat, and tears. Algorithms are changing that.

“Algorithms upend the scientific method,” says Franklin Foer in World Without Mind. With algorithms, “the patterns emerge from the data, from correlations, unguided by hypotheses. They remove humans from the whole process of inquiry.”

We should be careful what work – and indeed, thinking – we farm out to machines and algorithms. Efficiency is the underlying principle that governs most computer programming. But efficiency is a value, not a mathematical constant. Efficiency is about speeding up a process, and when things are done faster, shortcuts are taken and generalizations are made. And since algorithms are intelligently designed by humans, they will necessarily contain in them the trappings of humanity – namely, bias, assumption, and the preference of certain models and outcomes over others.

Keeping Algorithms in Check

So what can we do to make sure we retain our divine ability to think? How do we stop algorithms from making too many decisions in our lives? First, evaluate your relationship with your tech and the companies that make your tech. Ask yourself whether you really need to have a product or subscription. Second, consider alternative ways to do things that don’t involve a tech company harvesting more data about you. Third, realize that certain relationships you have with organizations, companies, and even the city in which you live will be informed by algorithms. Make sure you’re in the know about how algorithms will affect you, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Algorithms are part of the digital age, but we don’t have to be afraid of them or be beholden to them. Make informed, wise choices about your tech and tech relationships. That’s living authentically.

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