We live in an algorithmic world. For those of you not aware, or under 30, this may sound strange. That’s because this is the only world you know.
But for those of us who pay attention (or who are simply old enough to have witnessed other structures) this is obvious. We may not all describe it using the same word, “algorithmic”, but we all know something is very off with the world we live in.
What Does “Algorithmic” Means?
In this context, “algorithmic” means the world is continuously created and enforced by certain information algorithms.
Let me explain.
What we call “reality” is simply a collection of information. We take in information from our physical interfaces, like temperature, humidity, shapes and colors, sounds. We then organize this information, based on previous models, and create a representation of the world in our brains.
These models that we use for representations are not intrinsic, they are not “out there”, identical for everybody. They are influenced by a variety of factors: culture, economic development, scientific discoveries, beliefs, and so on. They are also continuously adjusting.
Up until 15-20 years ago, these models were predominantly social. In the sense that society, at large, was their depository and it was propagating these models through various channels: education, work, family, etc. People were passing on these models, and there was some sort of feedback applied to them, some assessment, and based on this assessment, some models were improved, and some discarded. There was a process involving many loops, steps and quite a lot of time.
Something happened 15-20 years ago. What we call “internet”, and, more precisely, “social media”, became the prevalent channel for the propagation of these models. Information travels instantly on the web, and it’s way easier to reach people through the internet, than it was before, using slower, but more thorough processes. It was just easier this way, and many of us were enthusiastic about this improvement. On top of that, social media diluted the concept of “news”, or valid information, and replaced it with opinions. It doesn’t matter as much what’s true, but how it makes me feel.
Instead of passing by models that were verified and endorsed via longer, more thorough processes, we created and distributed with an incredible speed, via internet and social media, incomplete structures, unverified (and unverifiable) claims, we started to define trends and polarize society with unprecedented speed and depth.
All this happened because of the increase in speed and accessibility of information.
We made something great, the internet. But we weren’t quite ready for it, as a species.
You see, propagating information on the internet is based on something called attention. It doesn’t happen by itself. There is not ethics attached to it either. There is an incentive for the players and there are specialized structures and skills which are used for that. We usually call these “content producers”, but there are many other parts involved, from politics to business.
The only thing they have in common, though, is the need for energy. In this case, energy equals money.
All structures broadcasting information on the internet need money, because they compete for a very limited resource: human attention. As a result of this competition, algorithms appeared. Responses were studied and algorithms were improved to the point that they even predict what you, as a user, may click on, in the next 5 minutes.
This incredibly refined machinery obfuscates “reality” and instead serves something that will elicit a reaction, that will trigger attention. That’s what keeps the machine alive. And by “obfuscation” I don’t necessarily mean falsification of reality. Most of the time it’s just a decoupage, a small slice of reality that it’s served, a slice that will make you resonate with it. In time, you end up believing that the slice you’re being served is the only reality.
That’s the veil of illusion.
That’s the problem.
Breaking The Veil Of Illusion
In a sense, we already live in light version of the Matrix. It’s not as “under-the-skin” as the dystopian structure in the movie, but it’s not far from it either. Although we can still move around and talk to each other, we already live in carefully crafted parallel realities, based on what we want, or, more precisely, on what triggers a reaction from us. Sometimes it’s pleasure, but way more often than that is fear.
So what we see in front of our eyes is a thin veil of imagery, custom-made by algorithms, which validates all our assumptions. It’s very hard to break through this, because “it feels” so real. It is so well made, that breaking it will almost feel like delusion. Whereas, in reality, us living under the veil is the real delusion.
Breaking the veil of illusion starts with practicing healthy distrust. Just because something “seems” real, it doesn’t mean it is. Just because we are seeing something now, it doesn’t mean that’s what happens. It’s just the first layer of the thick layer of imagery, the one constructed by the algorithms.
With courage and patience, we may start seeing beyond this.
Not to give any spoilers, but, once you conquer your fears and start seeing through the algorithmic constructs (which may take years, a lifetime, or more) what is on the other side is way more beautiful than whatever the veil can create.