Do Algorithms Talk to Each Other?
An algorithm is a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.
The currency of algorithms is information. There are algorithms for targeted advertising and distributing content, but underlying these types of algorithms is an attempt to quantify and predict how we’re likely to behave.
If one million people with a certain set of interests are exposed to this article, how many are likely to actually read it, based on the author’s popularity, the average reading rates and times of this subset of readers, and a host of other factors?
Anyone who’s scraped a site knows that it’s relatively easy to autonomously and continuously gather and analyze information. As our social networks become more entwined, more and more of our information is accessible to more and more entities.
The algorithms for each site may remain proprietary, but our behavior on these platforms and how they interact with us in return can also be analyzed by other algorithms, so for all practical purposes, the algorithms and the people running them know even more about us than we agreed to disclose in those end-user agreements we didn’t bother to read.
What This Means
Aside from your shopping and clicking tendencies, chances are that almost every major corporation you’ve ever heard of or interacted with also has a fairly accurate psychological profile of you.
What are your thoughts and beliefs now, and how are they likely to change in the future? People tend to become less neurotic and more rigid as they grow older, but in general, our personalities and behaviors tend to improve.
Our core beliefs and identities might remain fixed, but we tend to drink less, argue less, and be more conscientious.
Anyone who’s been on Twitter or Facebook might have serious doubts about this. I’ve seen my fair share of old friends go completely bonkers. But after a few years, they’ve all at least mellowed, or abandoned discussing their most insidious beliefs at all. Some of them have actually changed their minds and dropped their old ideologies completely.
It’s Not Privacy Versus Security
Today more than ever, it’s about privacy versus convenience. Or at least the illusion of privacy.
On one hand, you don’t want Target or Walmart knowing more about you and your family than you do, but on the other, you do want coupons and ads that are streamlined to accommodate your preferences. You’d just rather not be aware of just how much these entities know.
Most of us have heard about how Target predicted a teen was pregnant before her parents knew, and about the comic aftermath. First, the girl’s dad complained to Target, then a week or so later, after speaking with his daughter, he returned to apologize.
What most of us aren’t aware of is how Target changed its strategy. Now, if their data predicts that a woman is pregnant, she still gets the coupons for formula, cribs, and diapers, but they are buried in more innocuous ads for Pop-Tarts and lawn sprinklers.
So when a pregnant woman or family goes through the mailer, the ads for the cribs and diapers just seem like a happy coincidence, when in reality, all Target’s algorithms have really learned is a sense of tact.
We’re Literally Paying for This
Every conspiracy theorist I know has a smartphone. They are paying for a device that they know tracks their movements and behaviors, and can even be turned on remotely to spy on their face-to-face interactions.
These capabilities have undoubtedly prevented crimes, but still, you have to wonder. Tell a few jokes about a controversial topic, or make a drunken threat against a public figure, and you might be getting a visit from the FBI. But if you’re screaming for help while getting murdered in an alley, chances are the police are going to arrive too late, and this is just a logistical reality.
It takes time to respond, and a word like “help” isn’t going to prompt any agency to start spying on you. Or at least not yet.
But even it did, and there were enough police to respond promptly, is this really the kind of world we want to be living in?
If all of this effort to spy on us and sell us stuff, which have become practically indistinguishable, was put into education, or nudging us toward healthier, more responsible behavior, all of the spying and policing might not be as necessary.
But even then, would it be ethical? We’ve already been nudged by propaganda toward behaving in the self-interests of others. So who’s to decide what’s healthy or responsible?
This is the world we’re living in, and these tools can be used more beneficially and ethically.
For example, instead of nudging someone toward a belief, they could be nudged toward a fact check or learning about cognitive biases. If they claimed that an activity was un-American, they could be nudged toward the pertinent legislation, and the consequences those kinds of allegations have had throughout US history.
In other words, we could be encouraged to learn and think for ourselves.
The most frustrating part of all of this is that in the long-term, countries with better-educated populations are better off in just about every measurable way, including economically.
Someday, someone ambitious with a long-term vision will take up the challenge, and he or she will become unfathomably wealthy.
Hopefully, before it’s too late.