The invisible hand of algorithms?

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It is an experience that is widely shared. An ad suddenly pops up on social media about something that we were just talking about or even thinking about. Some of these thoughts may not be what we publicly admit to, being signs of vanity or worse that we sometimes don’t admit even to ourselves. The eerie sense of being stalked, of being observed and tracked, of being violated is a product of our digital times. We are told that algorithms are at work, and that they work out what we really want, even if we ourselves are not aware of it.

The algorithm has no moral compunctions, no boundaries that it implicitly observes. It works backwards from our actions, paying little attention to all our posturing. It infers correctly that at the end of the day, we are driven by impulses that lurk behind our rational ordered selves. It ferrets those out and exploits them, unmindful of the consequences unleashed as a result. Since this happens invisibly, drip by drip, and involves largely trivial choices on a day-to-day basis, we have no idea of the extent to which we are privileging certain aspects of ourselves that we would have otherwise kept under check. It then reorders the range of choices that it presents to us so that the horizons of our world become limited by those very impulses. It does so by reinforcing the validity of these impulses and by showing us that we are not alone, that in fact many others share the same kind of feelings and act similarly. Bit by bit, ideas that were thought of us as being unbecoming of us, become mainstream and legitimate.

We can see this at work in politics where the algorithm pushes us towards taking more extreme positions. It seeks to maximise user engagement and the more we froth and foam and fume on social media, the likelier we are to keep coming back and spending more time and adrenaline on the internet. The algorithm does not fear filth, nor abuse and is at home with vileness and crudity. On the contrary it rewards what we once thought of quite unanimously as bad behaviour. The same is at work when we express any kind of interest or desire in anything; mysteriously we find ourselves surrounded by more of the same. We are nudged in a direction by choices that swirl apparently randomly around us, coaxed towards options that we find ourselves naturally drawn towards.

There was an imperfection built into the exercise of influence in an earlier time, an imperfection that stemmed from the fact their understanding about the buttons that could be pushed for every individual was shallow. Manipulating people was still possible, but only in a generic sense. Besides, the intermediaries responsible had a filter that did not allow them to descend to certain levels even as they tried to manipulate public opinion. This was quite striking in the case of advertising, where the attempt to inveigle people into acts of consumption were pursued vigorously, but even these tended to stop far short of inciting hatred and violence in order to reach its desired goals.

We are naked before the algorithm, stripped of our pretences. The hypocrisies that made us strive to be better than who we really are, fall away from us, crumbling under the algorithm’s ability to stare unblinkingly into our soul and speak to the very worst of it that lies at its heart.

We might rail against racism in all forms, write passionate blogposts about it, and follow the icons of equality and tolerance. But our eyes might linger longer on people with flawless Caucasian features, and our tendency to buy clothes might be just a little bit higher when blondes advertise it, and unbeknownst to us, the algorithm would gently offer us more representations of the kind that we respond to and make us just that little bit more of who we really are.

The algorithm is in no hurry, it has all the time in the world to refine its understanding about what really makes us tick. Over time we become more comfortable with our internal impulses and this translates into the kind of behaviour we see all around us on social media. Aided by anonymity, perfectly mild people turn into vicious trolls, spewing abuse and venom.

Two seemingly contradictory movements are being seen. At one level, we can say what we really feel, without having to watch ourselves. At another, everything we say is traced back to who we are. Our opinions have no independent existence, they are always attached to our origins. Opinion is free, but the person giving the opinion is tethered. This allows us to distrust any opinion that does not align with our own worldview. We also become deaf to nuance, for that comes in the way of attaching labels to opinion.

It was perhaps hypocritical of us to believe that human beings could act impartially, that could rise above who they were, what circumstances shaped them, and what ideas they subscribed to, and act solely on the merits of a given situation. The idea of the disinterested official is at the heart of all structures of governance. One who would act as per one’s designated role, without fear or favour, and regardless of one’s identity and ideology.

Today, it is no longer possible for us to believe in that possibility, without applying several qualifiers. Identity politics today has gone back several steps; one is known more by where one came from than ever before. We see this on both sides of the ideological divide, if for very different reasons.

Interestingly, this change has come about because we are being indoctrinated by our own seemingly voluntary actions. We are being driven to the extreme edges of our own impulses, and the almost-invisible algorithm is playing a role in nudging us there.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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