Algorithms rule our lives for good and bad

Sometimes the closer you are to technology, the easier it is to overlook how revolutionary it is. Whereas 3D Printing continues to make my jaw drop, it took a link to the following video from SEO goddess Nichola Stott (@nicholastott) to reconsider exactly how much power and influence algorithms have in our lives – beyond ranking webpages or suggesting books and films we might like. If you’re at all involved in technology, mathematics or physics, take 15 minutes to watch Kevin Slavin:

Given that I spent a fair amount of my day looking at how changes to Google’s algorithm affects the ways in which I make a living, and that one of my relatives is indeed a former physicist now in the financial sector, you’d assume I wouldn’t be shocked when I stop and think about algorithms and how they rule our lives.

They’ve obviously had a well-documented impact in finance, and there’s a lot of algorithmically-generated art available to admire. In gaming, the area in which Kevin works, and I have a keen interest, they shape the worlds which we explore and the rewards which we strive for. At their most basic definition, they’re step-by-step procedures for calculations. And Wikipedia has a handy evolution of the term from Babylonia to ‘an effective method of solving certain sets of problems exists if one can build a machine which will then solve any problem of the set with no human intervention beyond inserting the question and (later) reading the answer’ (J. Barkely Rosser).

But I’m not a physicist (given the choice at school I actually preferred Biology as a potential route to psychology), and after school my interest in Mathematics tragically declined for a long time. (Still kicking myself for that one!).
Flock of Birds

So what do Algorithms mean for normal people?

What’s a day like when it’s ruled by algorithms? Well, it’s pretty much like the day you’re having now. I’ve probably missed a few off the list, so add your suggestions in the comments (and this isn’t necessarily accurate in terms of timings)

  • 9am – catch up with news on the internet. I don’t pay attention to Content Farms as a rule, but I do read articles from some large media companies that definitely use algorithms to suggest the topics they cover in relation to search demand – e.g. the likes of AOL and Yahoo (In addition to human curation).
  • 10am – Catch up on Twitter and Facebook. Who appears in my Facebook news feed? Those deemed to be most relevant via Facebook’s Edge Rank.
  • 11am – Head to local supermarket to stock up for lunch. The combination of a loyalty card and warmer weather means they’ll know I’m more likely to be tempted by fresh fruit or ice cream on a sunny day, and they can automatically be adjusting for this without human intervention.
  • 11.30am – Back to working on the latest changes to Search Engine Optimisation, paying close attention to any rumours or evidence that Google has changed the way it ranks websites.
  • 1.30pm – Quick lunch break – checking out what Youtube has recommended I might want to watch while I snack.
  • 1.50pm – Treat myself to a purchase from Amazon. More automatic recommendations, and also automated pricing.
  • 2.40pm – Interrupted by an automated call from a financial services company that has had me brought up as relevant for one of their products on the computer system.
  • 2.45pm – Having told them to go away, I’m working again.
  • 5.00pm – Get in the car to pick up the family – passing through automated traffic light systems. And avoiding speed cameras which will automatically send out my punishment in the post.
  • 6.00pm – Recycle some direct marketing mail, check out the latest update on my mortgage, and look at whether to switch insurance providers.
  • 7.00pm – Watch a DVD sent via Lovefilm, or sit down and relax with some Xbox. Not only are their recommendation calculations in my DVD choice, but even whether the film is made or not. And who I game with in matches, and how well I do is controlled by algorithms to hand out the right rewards to keep me hooked.

That’s a hypothetical example just listing the first things that come to mind, but even if you don’t work in a technology industry, it’s easy to see how much of what is available to you is controlled by automated calculations.

Then there’s the physical implications of locating server farms and laying cable to reduce transaction times by milliseconds. And in the everyday world, I know of several people besides myself who factored in the distance from the local internet exchange when buying a new house – that could increasingly have an effect on house prices in the future, along with the availability of faster internet speeds.

Can we all be reduced to ’42’?

The legendary sci-fi author and genius Douglas Adams once wrote that the answer to life, the universe and everything was the number ’42’.

Algorithms can be incredibly useful, can be incredibly frightening if you consider that your life may be somewhat determined by the numbers assigned to your lifestyle choices, but aren’t going to go anywhere given the demand by business in particular for what they see as numerical certainty in logical decision making (Which often goes wrong, or gives rise to churning out the wrong numbers for the sake of it).

Most of them are closed and private for justifiable reasons in terms of business and to try and protect their integrity, but also mean that we have little or no methods for even knowing any errors relating to ourselves, or being able to correct them.


And given the varying beliefs around religion and the purpose of humanity, perhaps we’re actively trying to prove there’s a logic and higher purpose to our existence with the belief in reassuring logical systems?

Meanwhile the code has evolved to the stage where very few, if any people, can claim to understand it entirely. And that still leaves the question of Black Swan events pretty unanswerable by logical planning and thought.

So what can we do?

I think we’ve got a bit of a job to do as potentially more tech-savvy people in learning and educating ourselves, and sharing that in an accessible way with the society around us to get away from the idea of inaccessible algorithms predeterming our fate.

I’m not suggesting that businesses should be forced to open up all of their algorithms, but I do think that the more understanding of the principles of them which are non-proprietary would mean that perhaps we’re all better prepared when dealing with them on a daily basis to be able to accept or correct their judgements.

And maybe we need to remember that machines aren’t something we can absolutely rely on to replace our judgement and critical thinking about what we really need.