Algorithmic Literacy

It seems everything is a “literacy” these days. We might quibble and say, “literacy is reading and writing”. Even if we object, we know what is meant by multiple literacies-being fluent in, or being able to understand and use what comes before “literacy”.

Why not algorithmic literacy?

I’m not referring strictly to being able to read and write in code, that is, being a computer programmer. I refer to being aware of the presence of algorithms in their lives, and the increasing role they play, both for good, and for bad.

Cathy O’Neill, in Weapons of Math Destruction, takes us through some very insidious ways algorithms perpetuate bias and poverty, in self-defeating algorithmic loop. Algorithms to Live By focuses more on the presence of algorithmic thinking in our lives, which can be a huge positive.

We need to become increasingly more aware of how algorithms and big data sort us and shape us. Our Facebook echo chambers leave us prone to fake news. Amazon has lots and lots of information about the things we like (indeed-I once said that Amazon is the algorithm that knows me best!) Netflix is a highly curated experience. It tries to know what I like, at least. Google’s famous algorithm made it the “world’s greatest” search engine, but even that is not without its bias. We would do well to question why and how certain search results appear at the top. Adopt a critical mindset, always, when on the Internet.

Algorithmic literacy may consist of at least knowing when an algorithm is present, behind the scenes, and making inferences about what it’s trying to do. We can approach algorithm writing through coding and the computational thinking mindset in schools.

Matt Parker (@Standupmaths) enjoyably describes algorithms as “cake recipes on steroids”. I think there is lots of room in schools for algorithm writing, both with and without code.

Algorithmic thinking includes writing clear and specific steps for reaching a goal, in order, much like a recipe. You wouldn’t ice the cake before it’s baked, after all.

Most of us will never be able to see into the code inside the algorithms that are a huge part of our lives. That is the job of data scientists, computer scientists, and mathematicians. An awareness of their existence, and increasing presence in our lives could be defined as “algorithmic literacy”.

Now why did that ad for rental cars pop up at the top of the screen, anyway?