Have been reading a few things about the dreaded ‘a’ word (algorithms), in light of various SoMoBro’s rolling back promises on what they scrape from the encounters we have with its various products (backtracking on tracking if you like) and stumbled on a piece in the New Yorker on ‘Algorithmic anxiety’ (captured beautifully by one of the protagonist’s in the piece; “I’ve been on the internet for the last 10 years and I don’t know if I like what I like or what an algorithm wants me to like.”)

A good algorithm appears to be a really helpful list of rules. that if followed, give a reliable output. As it’s repeatable, it gives reliable returns for recurrent problems – it’s good at sorting (or finding) stuff to present back. I guess that’s what makes the ‘predictive’ nature of it appear so alluring – predictive not in the mathematical sense of reliability when looking for answers, but in the more magical sense of second sight. Type something in and presto-chango, the thing (and so you!) appear to have the answers.

As algorithms began life in the world of maths, they were closely associated with reason. Through a metaphysical jump they “have come to be valued as more ideal than error-prone human judgment.”

This intervention – new ‘rules of thumb’ (which used to be things to guide us based on practice) generated not with us, but because of us – helps feed an unerring feeling that you’re not actually what you think you are when you’re online. Things that we’re barely aware of interacting with, start following us around like creepy shadows.

But what’s all this got to do with my (perhaps your) day job? In a word; judgement. How do you know when the choices you’re making are right if all you do is throw questions at an algorithm?

Karl Bartos, (the drummer) was interviewed about his seminal role in Kraftwork, and observed them losing the creative spark when they started ‘working’ with computers rather than between themselves (the irony of the band so ubiquitously associated with the ‘man-machine’ sound was all the best work was analogue, pushing the basic tools to their limits.) Rather than look one another in the eye, they all staring at monitors.

“At the time, (Bartos) thought innovation and progress were synonyms. I can’t be so sure anymore.”

When you ask ‘someone’ for an opinion on what you doing (designing for, towards), they’ll hopefully (if you’ve picked your team well) tell you what they honestly think. Ask a machine and it’ll tell you what you want to hear. Not quite the same thing.

And you know an anagram of ‘algorithms’ is ‘harm it logs’. Don’t let them make less of you.

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About Richard Hill

Creative director, writer, designer, illustrator based in the UK with global project experience and consulting skills across sectors.

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