Behold the Almighty Algorithm, a snippet of computer code coming to stand for a Higher Authority in our secular age, a sort of god. Algorithms are provoking a backlash, too, against the very idea of “machine learning,” a phrase that till just recently sounded oxymoronic. Learning and thinking were what people did, but more and more thinking people defer to the Algorithm for its distinctly non-human power of computation, for the cool objectivity of informed judgment that we routinely honor more than our own. How did it happen and what does it mean that Algorithms got to pick our playlists and books, to map our routes, someday drive our cars home in traffic; second-guess our love lives, shape our selves, almost override our flawed but precious human-ness? We’re test-driving the new machinery on the road beyond reason.
Welcome to the rapidly evolving regime of algorithms, to the vast but more and more inscrutable power of computation. Some say we’ve passed a point of no return in the outsourcing of our minds, yet there is resistance too, and lots still to argue about. For example, has the idea of free will expired, like our bygone privacy? Suppose that the machines are in fact better tuned than human brains are to the way the world works. What if it takes a leap of faith, as was said about religion, to believethat a machine has the truth?
The anthropologist Nick Seaver at Tufts University studies the algorithms that read you and your taste, and the people who build those ‘recommendation’ services, which tell you what music you’re going to like and what you should listen to next.
Moira Weigel and Ben Tarnoff are co-founders and editors of the brave young magazine called LOGIC: big questions and brilliant writing four times a year on technology.
Rob Horning, an editor for the online publications Real Life and The New Inquiry, has built up a writerly reputation for thoughtful, careful scrutiny of social media and digital culture. In our conversation, he analyzes the ways in which internet algorithms are used to construct and sustain our sense of self in the digital mirror.
Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, analyzes the ways in which government agencies use algorithmic programming for the purpose of surveillance and control. She also helps us think through how these programs can be manipulated to “monkey wrench” the systems they’re intended to protect.
Helena Bassil-Morozow, a Glasgow-based media critic, gives us her deep read of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and the ways in which a dating algorithm plays a quasi-divine role in the Season 4 episode, “Hang the DJ.”