Friday, April 10, 2020

The tyranny of algorithms - I

[T]here is one world in common for those who are awake, but [when] men are asleep each turns away into a world of his own. — Heracleitus

It was assumed that the internet would level the playing field and invite new competition into markets that had always had high barriers to entry. Thoreau remarked that our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end. Those who think they see clearly the direction in which a new technology will take us, especially the inventors of that technology, are blind to unforeseen consequences. In Technopoly, Neil Postman says that we are currently surrounded by people who see only the positives of a technology and are blind to its negatives. ‘They gaze on technology as a lover does on his beloved, seeing it as without blemish and entertaining no apprehension for the future. They are therefore dangerous and are to be approached cautiously.’

To illustrate his point about there being winners and losers in the development and spread of any technology, Postman writes about computer technology. It has increased the power of large-scale organizations like the armed forces, or airline companies or banks or tax-collecting agencies. But to what extent has computer technology been an advantage to the masses of people like steelworkers, vegetable-store owners,  garage mechanics, musicians, bricklayers, etc.? He writes:

Their private matters have been made more accessible to powerful institutions. They are more easily tracked and controlled; are subjected to more examinations; are increasingly mystified by the decisions made about them; are often reduced to mere numerical objects. They are inundated by junk mail. They are easy targets for advertising agencies and political organizations. 
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It is to be expected that the winners will encourage the losers to be enthusiastic about computer technology. That is the way of winners, and so they sometimes tell the losers that with personal computers the average person can balance a checkbook more neatly, keep better track of recipes, and make more logical shopping lists. They also tell them that their lives will be conducted more efficiently. But discreetly they neglect to say from whose point of view the efficiency is warranted or what might be its costs. 
Should the losers grow skeptical, the winners dazzle them with the wondrous feats of computers, almost all of which have only marginal relevance to the quality of the losers' lives but which are nonetheless impressive. Eventually, the losers succumb, in part because they believe. . . that the specialized knowledge of the masters of a new technology is a form of wisdom. The masters come to believe this as well . . . The result is that certain questions do not arise. For example, to whom will the technology give greater power and freedom? And whose power and freedom will be reduced by it? 
About 15-20 years ago, the Internet was promising a new era of transparency, in which open access to information would result in extraordinary liberty. Law professor Glenn Reynolds predicted that “an army of Davids” would overthrow smug, self-satisfied elites. But the powerful players in the worlds of business, finance, and search deployed strategies of obfuscation and secrecy to consolidate power and wealth. The fates of individuals, businesses, and even our financial systems are at the mercy of hidden databases and dubious correlations generated by ‘unbiased’ algorithms. It has always been the case that those who have control over the workings of a particular technology accumulate power and inevitably form a kind of conspiracy against those who have no access to the specialized knowledge made available by the technology.

Technology gurus of Silicon Valley are creating a new universal narrative that legitimises the authority of algorithms that manipulate huge amounts of data. Every day people take in huge amounts of data through emails, phone calls and articles; process the data; and transmit back new bits through more emails, phone calls and articles. According to Yuval Noah Harari, the motto of these data mavericks says: “If you experience something — record it. If you record something — upload it. If you upload something — share it.” Internet companies will claim that the more you tell them, the more they can help you.

A key trend in how the Internet is developing today is the drive toward the personalization of our online experience. Everything we click, read, search, and watch online is increasingly the result of some complicated optimization effort (which is immune from scrutiny), whereby our previous clicks, searches, “likes,” purchases, and interactions determine what appears in our browsers and apps. Internet companies want that endless array of data points to develop detailed profiles of the people who use them. Pattern recognition is the name of the game — connecting the dots of past behavior to predict the future. Every business wants a data advantage that will let it target its ideal customers. Since it costs us nothing we don't think twice about it.

But it is a myth that sharing data has no costs. Those who cultivate competence in the use of a new technology become an elite group that are granted undeserved authority and prestige by those who have no such competence. For every discount or shortcut big data may offer, it’s probably imposing other, hidden costs or wild goose chases. Your data is a source of huge profit to other people, but often at your expense. When we click on an ad promising a discount, there’s probably a program behind the scenes calculating how much more it can charge us on the basis of our location or whether we’re using a Mac or PC.  Recommendation engines at Amazon and YouTube affect an automated familiarity, gently suggesting offerings they think we’ll like. What finance firms do with money, leading Internet companies do with attention. They  direct it toward some ideas, goods, and services, and away from others.

Harari says that this reliance on Big Data to make important decisions will make authority shift from humans to algorithms. Big Data could then empower Big Brother. Given enough bio-metric data and enough computing power, external algorithms could know us better than we know ourselves, and then governments and corporations could predict our decisions, manipulate our emotions and gain absolute control over our lives. If and when artificial intelligence (AI) surpasses human intelligence, it may be given control of weapon systems and crucial decisions, with potentially calamitous consequences.

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