ALGORITHMIC ALCHEMY

All hail the algorithm: the seemingly alchemic codes underlying our every online move. While the conveniences they afford our modern lives are plentiful, the extent of their pitfalls remains murky. How to keep it in balance? We take a closer look at coming to terms with the intangible rules that are rewriting our realities, one click at a time. 

 

Text by Anna Dorothea Ker /Image by Aaron Dawkins

 
 
 
 
 

Do you ever get the feeling your experience of reality is being controlled by powers out of your grasp? Not by the stars or the chemicals in your brain, but by a force that seems just as mystical, if not a little more technical: the algorithm. Whether we like it or not, the influence of algorithms over our lives is inescapable. Yet, while we unwittingly submit to the spells they cast, the power to demystify — if not decode — them lies in the minds of the curious and the critical.  
 
Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer,” 1 algorithms manifest in myriad forms across all sectors of society, from pioneering artificial intelligence to life-saving advancements in medicine. Of course, even those of us not intimately involved in the science, art, or business of creating them are captured in their all-encompassing embrace. And that embrace often feels warm, comforting, exhilarating even.
 
After all, it’s hard to imagine living without the conveniences algorithms afford us. From Instagram’s “Explore” feature and Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” playlists to Amazon’s product recommendations — engineered through open-source software, collaborative filtering, natural language processing, and deep learning thanks to swathes of data — the platforms we give to and take from claim to know our preferences better than we do ourselves.
 
The benefits of algorithms’ ability to understand, correlate, respond to, and make suggestions based on our likes, interactions, and click patterns are manifold. Not only is a world’s worth of information at our fingertips, but we don’t have to move an inch to access it. Instead, it's being served up to us on personalised platters, saving us time and energy by collating our preferences and introducing us to new ideas. Friends. Friends of friends. Parties. Openings. Discounts. Songs. Images. Ideas. The discovery of the new — streamlined and pre-tailored — is a simple click, scroll, or double tap away.

Naturally, that convenience comes at a cost. On one level, it’s curbing our creativity and originality whilst making us ever more reliant on our machines. Despite the “personalisation,” it’s still the agendas of the richest, most powerful players that are reaching us the most frequently, distorting our perception of whose voices matter. On another level, we’re aware that the data we feed these algorithms with is being gathered, stored, and sold, yet we consent to it all in the blink of an eye — swatting away cookie warnings, speed scrolling through Terms and Conditions of Use, checking our bank balances over public wifi. We roll our eyes at ads for the Air Maxes we abandoned in our shopping cart two minutes ago, and get annoyed with the knowledge that dynamic pricing means we’re not getting the best Skyscanner deal. It all feels vaguely icky, but we get it: the cause-effect correlation is clear to see.

Then there’s the “filter bubble” nature of our social media feeds, which sees the opinions, inclinations, and political leanings we digitally affiliate with being mirrored back to us, limiting the range of perspectives we’re exposed to and the voices we engage with. Given that over 50% of millennials count Facebook as their primary source for news,2 this starts to feel a little more concerning. But thanks to a growing public consciousness of the gravity of this reality, especially in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, the discourse around the Facebook echo chamber has entered the mainstream. It’s when we venture into the vast void of data storage, sharing, and surveillance that things start to take a frightening turn. Because while we can’t imagine living without the advantages algorithms afford us, we can’t fully know the extent of the trade-off we’re submitting to either. Who’s watching, what are they looking for, and what will they do with what they find? The thought is enough to induce paranoia of Orwellian proportions amongst even the most innocent of Internet users.
 
So where’s the fear? Why, in a post-Snowden world, do we seem to be leaving the concerns to conspiracy theorists on the fringes of society? Have we become so primed for online convenience that we’re numb to the unknown unknowns, satiated by a false sense of security in our VPNs? We seem comfortable with the idea that, as semi-anonymous Mac users with more or less clean browsing histories, the viruses, leaks, and hacks can’t touch us. Should we just let go and accept that algorithms are merely tools that are mirroring and proliferating naturally-occurring human behaviours. The lack of control we have in the face of ever-smarter machines and the codes they’re creating for us suggests otherwise: Dave Eggers’s dystopic future vision presented in his 2013 novel, The Circle,3 is hurtling into our present reality at exponential speed.
 
So, what to do: simply sit back and buckle up for the ride? Not necessarily. With an autodidact mentality, a playful approach, and a bit of insight, even the non-tech wizards among us can remove the veils that shroud algorithms in mystery. Let’s equip ourselves with the resources to understand them — and how they’re impacting our online behaviour — from staying in the loop with the latest developments in tech, politics, and business to teaching ourselves the coding we need to make our online platforms work harder for us. It shouldn’t have to take a full “digital detox” to reduce our dependence on algorithms: we just need to retrain ourselves to use them in smarter ways. To start our research on paper, with conversations and books, at galleries. To see what the physical world has ready to serve up to us. To swap mindless scrolling with pointed searches. To stay the masters of our tools — so they don’t outsmart us first.

 
 
 

1 Algorithm. oxforddictionaries.com, retrieved from en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/algorithm.

2 Pew Research Centre, "Social Media Update," retrieved from pewinternet.org/2016/11/11/social-media-update-2016.

3 Dave Eggers, The Circle: A Novel (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).