Thoughts on Codifying Humanity
In the digital world every typed character, every mouse click becomes a matter of historical record. Each shutter snap or word spoken adds to the footprints of humanity. Algorithms have become the mysterious oracles of this vast collection of data. But beyond managing and analyzing, they’ve come to quietly shape much of our behavior.
Facebook provides the most recent cautionary tale. Offering a platform for both private and public communications, the giant stores every possible bit of data about users and exposes this trove to some of the most brilliant and awe-inspiring AI imaginable. Face and image recognition links with satellite fed location data into an interface designed to illicit Pavlovian responses to articles, ads, pictures. This process has each of its billion plus users unwittingly completing the most rigorous profile of human personality and behavior ever undertaken.
Even early investors and former executives of the social media giant are beginning to express reservations about the amount of influence and control the platform exercises over our daily lives.
While these incredible systems are troubling, they’re not yet smarter than their creators. Designed around simple, binary concepts such as “likes”, in hindsight, it was only a matter of time before the phrase “confirmation bias” became the new buzzword. And only a matter of time before propaganda masters the world over saw the benefits of such a system.
Regardless the partisan atmosphere which seeks to either discredit or weaponize recent events, it has become obvious these Facebook algorithms gleefully took part in an attempt to sway public opinion for what could (or could not — opinions vary on the outcome) posthumously be labeled the “Leader of the Free World.”
The scope and success of that attempt can be debated, but the fact it happened cannot.
Any grand conspiracy on Facebook’s part to willingly participate in a virtual coup should be looked at with skepticism. Their algorithms and data were hijacked. However, it simply reinforces how much sway Facebook and other social media platforms had over our lives prior to the event. The weakness which foreign actors attempted to exploit in U.S. society was a pre-existing condition, true, but one an insular platform of “likes” and ego-stroking only helped cement.
Facebook of course isn’t the only player in this space. Google knows your secret crushes, your medical history, your kinks, your political leanings. If you’re a mobile user and Gmail user, your exact location is up for grabs as well as any company you trade correspondence with and whatever else can be skimmed from the contents of your email.
Mighty Google also routes us around town. They provide helpful suggestions on where to shop or nearby photo opportunities. Thus linked to Google, there is no need to explore, only the requirement to look up from your phone when prompted. Only find the places they want you to see.
Already managing our societal perceptions and our daily, mundane lives, what else is at stake? Our leisure time and even the very processes which create content to fill those off hours are no exception.
Myself and everyone who has ever tried to sell a book on Amazon (which, at times, fells like a vast majority of the global population…) knows the absolute importance of the Amazon algorithm.
Like the other algorithms, Amazon’s is an ingenious way to make sure every reader is led directly to the books they love. It can analyze millions of purchases and user data to find similar books and suggest what your next read should be. Forget advertising, this is a recommendation from a close friend who knows you best: exactly what genres you enjoy, the specific story elements you like, and the authors who match closest to the ones you’ve already rated highly or bought from regularly.
What could be wrong with that? Who can be bothered to read stuff they don’t like?
But much as Facebook tread into the dangerous waters of Confirmation Bias, this approach codifies the book discovery experience. For authors and readers alike, it punishes experimentation. New concepts and ideas will languish at the bottom of the heap. Not only Amazon, but Netflix, Hulu, and every media company has it’s own version.
With the glut of information and media available it seems reasonable and even necessary to create ways to help people navigate. But consider this: Each of these companies also creates its own content. Think about that for a moment. This isn’t all about benevolent guidance. Whether intentional or unintentional, these algorithms are being used to influence your choices.
In the end, we’ve allowed the mysterious portents of a binary consciousness to reduce us to the inflexible world of one’s and zeroes. To determine not only where we walk, eat, sleep, but what we believe and even the wanderings of our imaginations. Humanity codified. Is this really an upgrade?
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