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Culture Tech

Nothing is random

Discoverability will forever be twisted in the maw of internet algorithms.

Nothing is ever truly random. We are data’s significant other with a bullseye on our back.

Facebook has been triangulating our data for years, matching our likes with the highest bidder. Designers, copy-writers, and marketers work together to create internet ads that strangle our attention into a click-hole.

So here we are, next up surrounded by the internet of things to feed the system of ads. We invite zero ambiguity — we tell the system what we want, and it reports back.

Look around — we’re well-trained click monkeys forever melting into a spiderweb of Times Square.

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Science Tech

Dancing with the algorithms

We dance with the algorithms, yielding time-saving results. How else are we to discover all these gems in a sea of content? How are we to land on the right words in a swamp of choice?

From Spotify to Gmail’s suggestive text, we accept the computer’s recommendations to curate and speak for us. We allow the recipes to crunch down our tastes and our speaking patterns, essentially doing all the homework for us.

Playlists generate themselves; emails answers themselves. 

Yet, just as humans are poor decision-makers, the symphony of algorithms is also flawed. 

“An algorithm is an opinion embedded in math,” writes Cathy O’Neil in her book Weapons of Math Destruction (Amazon).

The computers and their code are often in over their heads, impractical, and sometimes stupid. Just ask Facebook — it takes a human to quell the dangerous idea virus that is fake news. 

The algorithm, written by humans, also requires human moderation. 

The ultimate balance of power is the intermixing of human neurons with the speed of computer nodes. Connecting humans to computers will supercharge decision-making in a fast-paced world. 

Thoughtless algorithms seem to know us better than ourselves, for now.

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Books Productivity & Work Tech

What do we read next?

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We suffer from the infinity of choice, to what type of books we’re interested in, all the way down to the format we want to read them in.

Amazon’s recommended book algorithms allay the frustration of making decisions by taking into account your past reads and what others have read to suggest what to consume next.

Algorithms (or recipes) therefore resolve two things: Indecision fatigue caused by the avalanche of choice and the wisdom of crowds.

Spotify Discover Weekly works the same way — after it gets to understand your habits and preferences it recommends prebuilt playlists to appease your taste.

Algorithms free up our brain space to do rather than toggle between the options. They are the antidote to the chaotic linear 21st-century feed.

The more time we spend consuming rather than selecting what’s next is time well spent. By outsourcing our digging, we create more time to learn.

Even the proactive tastemaker must yield to the occasional “if and then” statement to build on top of the symphony of algorithms. A remix is not always artistically lesser than its origins.

In an increasingly algorithmic world, there can still be an element of human touch to prove we’re not headed toward complete thoughtlessness after all.

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Politics & Society Tech

Punching back against nihilism

It’s not a matter of if we combat the firepower of irreality, but a matter of when. But then it might be too late to punch back. #gif

The brain is stuck on hype rather than facts and figures. It devours the external stimuli of incessant feeds and 24/7 news and predictably shuns the details.

If we want to overthrow the swathe of nihilism, then we need to create a system that supports credibility. The algorithm failed to do it. Pre-programmed maths exposed the human biases and fragility.

It’s not a matter of combatting the firepower of irreality but how well we can protect against its ailments. Keep in in mind that it might be too late to punch back.

art via giphy

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Tech Video

The truth about algorithms

Mathematician Cathy O’Neil explains why algorithms are programmed and curated with bias. She is the author of Weapons of Math Destruction (Amazon) and runs ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing firm.

An algorithm is an opinion embedded in math.

Cathy O’Neil
Categories
Culture

How algorithms destroy personal taste

Taste comes from an amalgamation of sources. It assumes that we’ve dabbled in both good and bad, and actively seek to find new things to recommend.

But in this algorithmic world, taste gets delivered. Whether it’s the next Spotify song or someone to follow on Instagram, we adhere to the machine rather than following our own interests.

Algorithms may save you time but they inhibit the authentic discovery process of sampling. Should we choose to navigate on the basis of originality, we are all well-equipped with own unique perspectives and taste buds.

Say it with me: I enjoy what I enjoy regardless of its potential for receiving likes, going viral, or being found acceptable by an algorithm.

Say it with me: I also do not deny that I am implicated, inexorably, in the Generic Style of my time.

Read Have Algorithms Destroyed Personal Taste?

Categories
Social Media Tech

ORCAA, a logo to certify organic algorithms

Her latest project ORCAA, O’Neil Risk Consulting and Algorithmic Auditing, offers services to companies that promise to maintain a more honest algorithm that unlike Facebook, doesn't sacrifice private data to maximize revenue.

“The internet is a propaganda machine,” writes author Cathy O’Neil in her book Weapons of Math Destruction where she criticizes the algorithms which have come to disrupt society and politics.

Her latest project ORCAA, O’Neil Risk Consulting and Algorithmic Auditing, offers services to companies that promise to maintain a more honest algorithm that unlike Facebook, doesn’t sacrifice private data to maximize revenue.

“People don’t really check that things are working,” she tell Fast Company. “They don’t even know how to ask the question.”

For the logo, Cathy O’Neil requested the designer Katie Falkenberg make it look “fat and fierce.” I think they just about nailed it.

Right now, the seal is a simple ring design with ORCAA’s killer whale logo and text that reads, “Algorithm audited for accuracy, bias, and fairness,” with the date. Falkenberg hopes to one day update it so it gets timestamped from the date it’s uploaded to a company’s website. Because algorithms are constantly changing, Falkenberg wants the seal to let users know when an algorithm was last certified. O’Neil says algorithms should be regularly audited–perhaps once every two years or so, depending on the complexity of the code. Falkenberg also hopes to link the seal to O’Neil’s website so users can understand exactly what it means when they see it.

Categories
Culture Daily Prompts Tech

Beware the algorithms

Six hundred red years ago, there was no such thing as personal identity. Only when people owned mirrors did they start seeing themselves as individuals.

One hundred years ago, all fighter pilot seats were the same size until there became unnecessary deaths. The US Air Force adapted and customized its seating options.

The mass markets ushered in by industrialization standardized our style. The factory mindset kicked in. But then the internet came along and let people shop in niches. The bell curve flattened, and we felt special.

But the algorithms that run the world today have once again undermined our uniqueness.

The machines determine what we wear, listen to, and read.

We have no choice but to partake in an algorithmic world. We get it: There are too many resumes for one job, a surfeit of photos, new music, and so on.

But picking the mathematical best obviates the outlier and the error. It is the spontaneity that makes us human. Context matters.

If we’re already living in a simulation, let’s not be afraid to be random. We know what we like, the rest is thrown at us by optimizing bots.

It’s time to get weird again.

Categories
Culture Politics & Society Productivity & Work Social Media Tech

Question the algorithms

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Photo by David Werbrouck

It is a canard to think that math can’t fail. All you need to do is look at the way society constructs algorithms – from job and college applications to Facebook feeds to find out that sorting can be wrong and biased.

In the case of the 2016 election, algorithms did more harm than good. Facebook fed the internet silos with fake news. As Cathy O’Neil author of Weapons of Math Destruction puts it in a 99% Invisible podcast: “The internet is a propaganda machine.”

We’ve adopted the factory mindset of mass-sorting, leaving the anxiety of decision-making up to machines. Humans are pieces of data, waiting to be organized by the least valuable candidate or customer.

There are too many of us and not enough time to make individual considerations. But a conversation around algorithmic frailty might do us some good. Making generalizations impedes the magic of discovering an outlier.

Categories
Productivity & Work Psychology Science Tech

Take algorithms with a grain of salt

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In a world of abundance, we need algorithms more than ever. From movies to books, music, and resumes, algorithms intend to save us time by eliminating a lot of the possibilities up front.

The problem with algorithms though is that they remove the outlier. The things that shape you are usually outside your normal scope of interest.

Professor of engineering at Oakland University Barbara Oakley was once a linguist until she realized she could apply the same “chunking” principles to become fluent in math. Mixing subjects broadened her understanding of how discovering new things work.

Algorithms never go deeper than the prescriptive answers. They take what’s most likely of interest and give you more of that, confirming your bias.

Human discovery is less fallible than machines. Aggregated tastes or wisdom of crowds is a viable recommendation engine. But the problem with people is a lack of time–we take too long to gather content and dig through it. The machines can sort through content streams faster, and with accuracy.

We can’t afford to our put our taste in any method. The only way to balance the curators, friend recommendation, with the algorithmic engines is to go manual, staying open to the possibility of discovering something outside our standards interests. Those magazines at the dentist’s office are worth perusing.