Oh, the humanity
The algorithm. For those of us who struggle with the factually mathematical and technological, it seems something of a mystery. Its aim, however, is not: “[to act] on a body of data to quickly achieve a desired outcome” (Gillespie 19).
One thing an algorithm is not, is a person, no matter how smart it becomes. True, algorithms are becoming more intelligent and (hopefully) more and more useful. But, ultimately, they will only ever be able to keep up with us according to two criteria: how honest we are and how well we are able to create value judgements. Unless humanity can cope adequately with these two issues (related problems have not been handled so well historically), then algorithms will be useful only within limits. As Gillespie writes, “To highlight their automaticity and mathematical quality, then, is not to contrast algorithms to human judgment. It is to recognize them as part of mechanisms that introduce and privilege quantification, proceduralization, and automation in human endeavors” (27). Human judgement is still needed as a complement.
I see how algorithms fail me, personally, every day, in the targeted advertising I receive online. As I’m currently working on a marketing and SEO project, I’m constantly having to research things that I would normally never care about: marine antennas, pizza cutters, sergers, hair thickeners, trumpets. I do not wish to purchase any of these things, nor any of the types of items or lifestyles that go along with them: boats, pizza recipes, hair regrowth, tickets to the orchestra. Do the algorithms that determine which advertising I receive understand this? No. In the end, I use a separate browser and usually a VPN so that my “work self” doesn’t infect my “regular self” — both of which happen to be mediated through the same computer screen (as is in line with post-industrial societies, as Manovich notes).
Gillespie writes: “The system struggles with the tension between the operationalized aims and the way humanity inevitably undermines, alters, or exceeds those aims” (27). We can create aims, but human nature, which leads us to distort and hide from ourselves (innocently or not) will ultimately disrupt even the most beautiful algorithm. Perhaps if we can become more honest with ourselves, we can overcome this obstacle. Or, perhaps, we will take Elon Musk to heart when he calls for a merger between the biological and the artificial, a hybrid intelligence that will push human capabilities and our definitions of the machine.
One potential problem with a blending of this type would be the loss of flexibility. A computer program will run through options and come to a conclusion quickly, while humans form judgements, obey impulses that have no factual basis, and take their time. Humans aren’t quite ready to give up this control and flexibility, which could partly account for how algorithms are designed today: “Algorithm designers are not pursuing correctness; they’re pursuing some threshold of operator or user satisfaction—understood in the model, perhaps, in terms of percent clicks on the top results; or percentage of correctly identified human faces from digital images” (20). We still need to be able to control what we do with results, how well they serve us; and this will probably continue to be the case until an algorithm can perfectly synthesize what we want and need at all given moments.
Gillespie, Tarleton. “Algorithm.” Digital Keywords, edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 19-30.