Digital Life

This Week’s Topic: Algorithm & Blues

Math wall
Math wall by João Trindade on flickr (CC-BY)
Solana Larsen
Written by Solana Larsen

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.


Further Reading:

About the author

Solana Larsen

Solana Larsen

Solana Larsen is co-author of the cookbook "Recipes for a Digital Revolution". She writes a newsletter for Web We Want and helped create this website. Formerly, she was the managing editor of Global Voices Online. Solana is a Danish-Puerto Rican journalist and digital activist.

8 Comments

  • Solana, great work so far :O) Glad I am a subscriber.
    Request: a 3 minute article or series of articles on how to in fact “Seek content outside “the bubble” shown to you in social media and search.”

  • Thanks for that.

    I personally think that algorithm transparency is the wrong road. The right road is that, those who care enough to do the work, run their own algorithms. One size fits all seems to be a guaranteed disaster. Some who grok the evil this does, in rewiring our brains, really need personal control. Legislation should ensure that. That way, at least people have the option to avoid the great dumbing down, that the Internet is creating.

  • You didn’t mention the effort to ban algorithm transparency. An international agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), supported by the Obama administration and expected to come to a vote in Congress in 2016, opposes requiring disclosures of source code. Article 14.17 of the TPP aims to prohibit the federal, state and local governments from passing laws that require access to source code. The TPP is very controversial, but it may pass. If it passes, foreign companies that don’t want to be transparent about the algorithms inside their products could force the US to pay a financial penalty if we pass laws that require algorithm transparency.

    See this article: http://www.vox.com/2015/11/29/9760918/tpp-ecommerce-chapter

    And here’s chapter 14 of the TPP (scroll down to Article 14.17): https://medium.com/the-trans-pacific-partnership/electronic-commerce-87766c98a068

  • Google can’t really make their algorithm public, otherwise people (internet marketers) will learn how to exploit it and their search results would become, well, terrible. So we just kind of have to trust Google to be fair, I guess, or switch to their competitors if we feel like they aren’t. Google seems to give me the best search results by far for now, so I’ll definitely be sticking with them – Bing doesn’t even come close.

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