Computer algorithms have become an increasingly integral part of our personal lives and how we interact and view society as a whole. Because of algorithms, we get the latest news stories and information via Facebook and Twitter. We get Google search results that cater to our personal preferences. We’re able to take the easiest driving routes with the help of GPS, and we buy products that we might not have known we wanted due to recommendation functions.
Since algorithms play such a large part in our lives, we may overlook their pervasiveness and also overlook the way our views are affected by a seemingly subtle force. A recent article by Michele Willson of Curtin University in Perth, Australia, suggests the omnipresence of algorithms raises interesting questions about day-to-day human experience, reports Science Daily.
One key aspect that Willson examines is the reduction of the human experience into data.
“Time, bodies, friendships, transactions, sexual preferences, ethnicity, places and spaces are all translated into data for manipulation and storage within a technical system or systems. On that basis alone, questions can be posed as to… how people see and understand their environment and their relations (when all is reducible to malleable discrete but combinable units),” says Willson.
But isn’t the thought of humans as data an affront to our uniqueness? If our personalities can be neatly packaged into bits of data, we might wonder if there’s anything that makes us distinctly special. Can our identities be observed simply as clusters of objective personality traits? Can we be so easily boxed up based on aesthetic preferences, ethnicities, sexuality and places of residence?
Not only can algorithms have an impact on the way we view ourselves, they can also have an impact on the way our socio-political perceptions are shaped — forcing us to look at how we view our relationships with others.
Algorithms aren’t perfect
Recent research has shown that there’s much bias in algorithms, reports The New York Times. These biases cover everything including gender, class and race.
For example, Google’s online advertising system shows ads for high-income jobs to males much more so than to females, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. If you search for a name that tends to be a more characteristically associated with African-Americans vs. a name that’s typically associated with a white person, you’re more likely to find arrest records, according to a study from Harvard University. And University of Washington researchers discovered that if you type “CEO” into a Google Images search, only 11 percent of the images show women even though 27 percent of United States CEOs are female.
Demographics as pure data could be seen as problematic for individuality and identity; after all, we live in a country where being unique is considered a right. But there are some positive aspects to these attempts to quantify human experience and preference via algorithms; just look at the success rate of marriages that began in the realm of online dating.
But they do make good matchmakers
Recent research suggests that there’s a higher rate of marriage satisfaction with couples who met online, reports Time. In a study funded by eHarmony and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of 20,000 Americans who were married between 2005 and 2012, 35 percent of those marriage were made possible because of internet dating. It turns out that 6 percent of marriages that began online ended in divorce or separation as opposed to 8 percent for marriages that began outside the digital world.
Aside from bringing love into many people’s lives, preference algorithms help us discover a wide array of media catered to the individual. The recommendation functions of Amazon and streaming services like Netflix and Hulu expose audiences to unexplored worlds in film, music and books. Just like your GPS app can make your drive easier, media-oriented algorithms can reveal untouched terrain by leading the user down roads that might otherwise remain less traveled. By guessing your ideal destination and refining your personalized path, algorithms can enhance how you experience media by recognizing your preferences, even if you’re unaware of them.
None of this is to say that algorithms are an absolute evil that must be eradicated, or that algorithms are the end-all be-all that can save us from loneliness. And of course, there are examples abound of how algorithms affect our everyday world like national security and financial analytics. But nonetheless, the examination of algorithms in our everyday lives gives us a chance to contemplate broader questions about our own humanity.