IMAGE: Viktor Bondar — 123RF

Our algorithm who art in heaven

Algorithms are the new gods. Okay, that may be going a bit far, but just bear with me for a few moments.

For example, in the case of my country, Spain, a single algorithm, Google’s, decides what information we find on our smartphones and computers in 97 percent of cases. So how does that algorithm decide on this or that information over another? The algorithm looks at our interests, our tastes and preferences and tries to provide us with something that is going to be of interest to us. How many of us have realized, as Eli Pariser has pointed out, that what we leave to one side or pay less attention to will end up disappearing from our view, converting our web experience into a hall of mirrors, a bubble wherein our prejudices, biases, and opinions are all comfortingly reaffirmed, time and again?

Facebook’s Instagram now operates along these lines, deciding via an algorithm what photos we’re going to see. According to its founder, Kevin Systrom, this all makes perfect sense, because most people only see around 30 percent of their contacts’ photos, which makes it worthwhile worrying about that third you’re going to be interested in. Facebook has been doing this for years: what we see isn’t the most recent or what our friends say, but simply an algorithm given omnipotent powers to decide what we want to see. Twitter followed suit last February, despite protests from users.

Algorithms try to maximize the number of times we interact with content. If you’re only going to see a few photos, a few updates, or a few tweets because there simply aren’t enough hours in the day, then they might as well be those that most interest you and that can be shared. As with other religions, this is proselytization pure and simple: if your God reaffirms your belief, you will share more and bring in new sheep to the flock.

We are living through a time of change: instead of God, we believe in algorithms that will give us what we thought we were looking for. Our algorithm, who art in heaven… give us this day our daily search…

Controlling an algorithm means being able to generate, popularize, and modify beliefs, being able to control how your flock feels. And if that ain’t power, then I don’t know what is.

(En español, aquí)

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