Thursday, December 14, 2017

Algorithms--The True Thought Police


I grew up devouring science fiction. By the time I was twelve I had digested every science fiction book in our town's library--everything written in the 1950s and '60s by futurists like Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Le Guin, Vonnegut, and Dick; all of the Science Fiction Short Story anthologies; and every fantastical classic going back to H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jonathan Swift, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and more. I credit my early immersion in the imaginative waters of these prophets of culture and technology for instilling in me an ability to think for myself, independent of the cultural groupthink that characterizes the way most people see the world.  

george orwell's 1984 novelNow I witness a long-foretold dystopian future unfolding before my very eyes, and it's not what I expected. Even as recently as 2009, when I wrote my own dystopian cyber-fiction novel, Reality Crash, I imagined a totalitarian state imposed from the top down in the classically fascistic, authoritarian hierarchy--much like the dictator known as "Big Brother" in Orwell's 1984

It turns out the top-down model is not imposing its dictatorship upon us. It's a grass-roots movement that is fueling our culture's own destruction. And the people who are mistaking President Trump for Orwell's Big Brother have got it all wrong. I'm chuckling as I type this because I just read a NYT article dated 1/26/17 entitled "Why '1984' Is a 2017 Must Read," and I respectfully think the writer of that article has it all wrong, too. Trump is not Big Brother--Social Media is, and the Pandora's Box out of which it sprang is the internet and its greedy, power-driven minions. 

Two days ago, a former Facebook executive went public with his "tremendous guilt" for exploiting dopamine feedback loops in human brains to make Facebook ever more addictive. Even our children are exposed to addictive snares, with teen users spending an average of three to five hours a day online with such apps as Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter rather than hanging out, face-to-face, with their actual-reality friends. A couple of months ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg apologized for the way his social media platform has been used to divide people rather than bring them together. 

And only yesterday, Consumer Watchdog put out a warning concerning patent applications that will allow Google Home and Amazon Echo devices to monitor your conversations at all times in order to learn your preferences and needs for targeted advertising. Talk about an Orwellian future! And it's not Donald Trump stuffing your mantle stockings with digital assistants this holiday season; it's you! Tell me, are these new electronic conveniences really worth the cost?


Researching this blog article caused me to dip into the academic well for news of the influence of algorithms on society and personal agency. I can assure you, I am not the first person to notice the great and terrible potential of allowing personal decision-making to be given over to mathematical algorithms that sort your choices, your friendship groups, and even your politics, into neatly packaged, clickable sidebars calculated for maximum engagement. Do you really wish to be sorted? Do you want your shopping decisions, your friends, and your political candidates preselected according to some secret formula? 

One social scholar concludes his journal article thusly:

"The algorithm is now a cultural presence, perhaps even an iconic cultural presence, not just because of what they can do but also because of what the notion of the algorithm is used to project. This means that the algorithm can be part of the deployment of power, not just in terms of its function but also in terms of how it is understood as a phenomenon. Algorithmic decisions are depicted as neutral decisions, algorithmic decisions are understood to be efficient decisions, algorithmic decisions are presented as objective and trustworthy decisions, and so on. We certainly need to gain a greater view of the inside of the algorithmic systems in which we live, but we also need to develop an analysis of the cultural prominence of the notion of the algorithm, what this stands for, what it does and what it might reveal." (The social power of algorithms. David BeerInformation, Communication & SocietyVol. 20, Iss. 1, 2017)

In 1984, Orwell clearly foretold our coming age of Loss of Truth and Love. He thought Big Brother would hold the people down through continually biased information coming from a government that only serves the needs of the powerful. I see the fear now rampant in the United States, but I think a lot of worried people are pointing their fingers in the wrong direction. Our Loss is coming about by Social Media's manipulation of information combined with increasing social and economic sorting that is breaking the bonds of true, human communication and culture. And the crazy sad thing is that people are purchasing this technology willingly and giving their lives over to it without any thought to the privacy, liberty, and love they are trading away. 

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