Web We Want’s new newsletter highlights one important topic every week and tells you what you need to know in 3 minutes or less.
What’s Going On?
Do you ever wonder how Google gives one page of top results when you search among millions of websites for one word? Or how Facebook chooses to show only a small number of posts from the hundreds posted by friends and family every day?
Humans tell computers how to act using step-by-step instructions called “algorithms”. These tell machines how to interpret and display the world’s data. Yet algorithms are a mystery to most people. And it’s not really clear who is accountable for them.
Algorithms have the power to change your world. They are at play in international finance and banking, affecting your loan conditions and interest rates. They often determine your experience of online news, shaping your views. An algorithm might even help find the love of your life by suggesting compatibility when you date online.
Who’s Doing Something?
As algorithms become more powerful, researchers, journalists, programmers and data scientists have begun to take note. There is a growing push for “algorithm transparency”, which doesn’t just mean showing the code, but rather describing the logic behind the calculations. Transparency can also refer to making clear who is responsible or how to suggest changes if you think an algorithm is flawed.
Technology is often mistaken for being unbiased, but actually algorithms help make plenty of subjective decisions — and they often do it based on error prone human input. Critical questions abound. Are some algorithms racist? Should we be wary of police using algorithms for “predictive policing”? Should governments have oversight of corporate algorithms? Who has oversight of government algorithms?
Policy advisors are only beginning to address such questions. Agreeing to ethical standards and legal safeguards is overdue in numerous contexts, including in the media. Finally, these questions are interwoven with general privacy concerns. With better legal protections of our personal data, we would have more peace of mind over how algorithms query our lives.
What Should I Do?Be aware that algorithms shape your online experience and have vital impact on your life. If you’re concerned, contact online platforms and lawmakers and ask them to make algorithms more transparent. Tell others. Help your parents, children and friends understand how algorithms on Facebook, Google, etc. determine their Web experience. Seek content outside “the bubble” shown to you in social media and search. What else is out there? Be critical of news and advertising. Support efforts for transparency and safety regulations for personal data. Connect with privacy organizations in your country.
- The Reality of Crime-Fighting Algorithms | Slate
- Uncovering Algorithms Looking Inside the Facebook News Feed | MIT Center for Civic Media
- Can Computers Be Racist? | Ford Foundation
- The Relevance of Algorithms (2012) | Culture Digitally
- The Ethics of Algorithms: from radical content to self-driving cars (PDF) | Centre for Internet and Human Rights