How Powerful Are Algorithms? | Idea Channel

Information Determinism. Scary stuff! Sadly, it sounds pretty reasonable. Think about it this way- we become like characters in a console RPG like Fable where every choice we make is locking us into a path because the Algorithms that are looking for key data indicators are channeling us this way and that.

Every time we make a choice, or a search, we’re slowly building a giant pile of data that will be used in certain ways to determine what we’ll be shown and where we’ll be sent online. Facebook is using these systems to even determine who our friends are, since our News Feed is being modified to just show us the people it thinks we most want to interact with based on our interactions with people. This will only get worse and worse with time, as the internet we see will become more and more customized to us and our tastes in an effort to keep us using it as much as possible. (To sell us stuff and make money from us.)

Not sure how to counter this, except maybe not using Facebook or other social networks, using Duck Duck Go for searching, and maybe proxies. But, if you want to use the Net at all for shopping, you have to log in somewhere, Ebay, Amazon, it doesn’t matter. And you will leave a trail, and they will use that data to try to sell you stuff, here, or in the future, it will happen unless you’re an ultra secretive and ultra-passive user.

A better route might be to give them too much confusing and conflicting data so they don’t know what boxes to stick you in. Or, since you know they’re watching, give them data which manipulates them to give you what you want. After all, if you show interest in a book with your Amazon account logged in, and then wait a week or two, you’ll get an email offering you the book at a greater discount. With a little knowledge and patience, you can use the system more than its using you.


5 thoughts on “How Powerful Are Algorithms? | Idea Channel

  1. Rob

    the idea isn’t as scary as its made out to be by the Idea Channel video. For example, try buying a gift book on Amazon. It’s a one- or two-time purchase, but will skew the results because Amazon can’t detect that you’re buying for somebody else. Actually, all culture encounters this problem with algorithms. Things don’t naturally break down into math because how we group or differentiate things is a human decision. It’s an illusion that we produce and maintain because it’s sometimes useful for both language and math.

    Information determinism is perhaps the worst video that I’ve seen the Idea Channel do. It provides very little in the way in the analysis department. I suspect (and hope) it’s just a filler video.


    • G, I think you’re missing the point. This is already happening. Facebook is shaping my friends list and whose posts I see based on my own likes and posts. At one point they’d pretty much eliminated everyone who didn’t share my own political views from the New Feed I see, and I had to purposely seek out posts by people who didn’t share those views to bring variety back into my feed or I would never see a world that didn’t agree with my views on Facebook. (This is something 99.9% of Facebook users will never do, either.)

      You say this isn’t an issue, but I would argue strongly it is. When Facebook does this, it’s creating a pure echo chamber which causes people to become even more extreme and convinced in their views, which encourages further social stratification and isolation. We can’t have a society when people don’t compromise and learn to deal with others who don’t share their views, but this is exactly what FB is doing in an act of Information Determinism for their own profit. (And it IS profitable, it keeps people passive, happy, and coming back to FB to get more of their social drug of choice.)

      • Is it really FaceBook’s fault, or has it been happening all along? Think about it. We’ve become dramatically more aware recently. Feminism is on the rise, racism is subsiding, and various other changes for more acceptance have occurred since we broke our isolationism. Yes, algorithms are the new threats, but they’re weak pretenders when compared to isolation, whether physical, political or religious.

        I say the same thing whenever someone tells me that society’s going to hell for one reason or another (algorithms, consumerism, religion, etc.). Society, or rather societies, are a lot more complex and resilient than we give them credit for. Barring a major manmade disaster, we’ll keep fighting to improve ourselves, because that’s what humans generally do. One step back, two steps forwards.

  2. I think marketing is what’s wrong with the world, so when I have the time I like to mess with stuff like this. I’ve had some good conversations with telemarketer survey-takers. (“Yes, I WOULD like to pay more for my car insurance…. MUCH more. I’ve had it WAY too easy for too long.”) I like to search for strange things online. (Fun Fact: for a LONG time I was getting “meet single women from China” ads. Now I get a lot of “Meet single Christian men” ones. I haven’t figured out which search ended up with THAT one.) Sometimes at the grocery store I start my shopping at the far end. Sometimes the middle.

    Fuck you, Ed Bernays.

    Don C.

    • Don,

      You’re right. It all comes back to that shift from Citizen to Consumer that happen around a century ago. Because our whole society runs on business, Marketing has become the core of our society that we rarely think about. (After all, without marketing, people wouldn’t buy shit, and if thet didn’t buy shit, everything would grin to a halt! Or at least, so the wisdom goes.) That desperately attempt to improve marketing has also resulted in social stratification and isolation, both on purpose and accidentally.

      After all, the more people fit into simple little boxes, the easier it becomes to market to the, right? Who cares if that screws up society, because businesspeople out there are going “I’ve got mine!”

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