We already live in an algorithmic reality. Whatever we experience, it has been presented to us as a result of some algorithmic processing. If it’s a social media feed, it comes based on our reactions. If it’s news, it comes based on our clicking patterns. If it’s a movie, it comes based on our previous preferences. If it’s a person, it comes based on our cultural and personal biases, both largely influenced by algorithms too.
Reality selects and delivers parts of itself based on a network of algorithms stacked on top of each other, and it creates a bubble around us, unique to us, that we call “reality”.
One can make the case that algorithms are good. They can, in a predictable way, generate the same result over and over again, lowering the entropy around us. At the end of the day, our entire learning process is based on algorithms, sequences of logical actions, chained in such a way that helps us solve a problem. From this point of view, algorithms can be seen as “useful”. That’s true.
But only if you know, understand and willingly engage with the algorithm. If you don’t know you’re part of an algorithm in the first place, if you don’t understand it and if you’re not willingly accepting to engage, then you’re taken for a spin. That’s a very mild expression for “manipulation”. Or worse.
Take Facebook, for instance. Do you know what makes you see certain posts in your feed, and not others? Do you know what triggers the display of certain ads and not others? Unless you’re part of a very select circle of persons, working for Facebook, or able to decode the algorithm using powerful AI approaches, most likely you don’t. You’re just part of an algorithm that does whatever it wants with you. As long as you partake in that activity, you’re going to be harvested.
It’s not a metaphor. You are literally harvested for your attention, time and, more often than not, political opinions and money, and you have absolutely no idea how this happens. Your ability to control reality is first impaired, then completely nuked, and whatever world you may have constructed for yourself is eventually completely replaced by the algorithm. You will see the villains they want you to see, you will spend the money on what they want you to spend it, and you will be angry and happy at the posts they want you to be angry and happy.
There is a certain feeling of liberation in understanding this algorithmic nature of reality. Of course, like any other liberation, it comes with a lot of anger, in the beginning, when you realize you’ve been played for years (or even your entire life). And then you need a lot of work to readjust, reassess and find a better way to live, not necessarily outside the algorithm, but in a more aware of the algorithm state. Here are a few simple rules that might help.
The Algorithm Rules
If you can’t see or assess the algorithm – don’t engage. The algorithm is always stronger than you.
If you can see the algorithm (as in the algorithm is public), but don’t have the capacity to understand it, ask someone who trust to explain it to you. Be sure you trust that person – should be a real person, that you met and got to know in real life, outside any algorithmic interaction. Once you have an idea, and you assess that’s ok to engage in the algorithm, do a small test first. Verify, don’t trust.
If you can see the algorithm and you have the capacity to understand it, but you don’t have the time to do it – don’t engage. The rush to engage itself is a symptom that the algorithm already knows you somehow from before, and it touches sensitive points.
If you can see the algorithm, and you understand it, try to gauge its autonomy or predictability. Test it before you engage. Verify, don’t trust.
If you can see and understand the algorithm, but you don’t like it, don’t engage. You can always find other algorithms. Or, to be clearer, you will be found by another algorithm, rather sooner than later.
What’s An Algorithm?
A job. A career. A relationship. A social media platform. A cryptocurrency. A DAO.
All these are the result and the product of algorithmic sequences, created on top of a digital web. You may live under the impression that you “like” them, or that they are good for you, but truth is you can’t trust anybody in this new world.
Not even yourself.