Algorithms, Engines of the Internet Matrix
The year is 2022 and the golden age of the algorithm is upon us.
On the internet, these invisible contraptions grind from behind-the-screen to manipulate modern life. They influence many of our daily decisions. Whether it’s the cute cat video you liked on social media, the dress you ordered online, or even your last google search — algorithms probably had a say. They appear to be omnipresent in our online space — but how did this happen? Moreover, should it be worrisome for humanity?
To fathom how algorithms infested the internet, we have to consider their place in today’s society.
Often wrongfully labelled “futuristic,” algorithms generally help us make sense of the vast amount of data present in the modern world by arranging it more efficiently than we ever can. Whereas, algorithms have always existed, and we have been aware of them for thousands of years now. In ancient Babylon, what we would consider basic algorithms today were used for simple calculations. Ever since, algorithms have become increasingly complex, especially as the computer age ushered in monstrous processing capabilities.
However, if you peel away the geeky stuff complicating an algorithm, you will see it for what it simply is: a problem-solving formula. Going by this, even mum’s dinner recipe is, in its crude way, an algorithm. At the very least, it answers the question, “What’s for dinner?” Moreover, who’s to say algorithms are to be used by computers alone? Chances are that you already have a rough idea of what an algorithm is because we use them daily, consciously or otherwise.
Ordinarily, before we had automated maps that directed us around traffic using the faster routes, if you wanted to go home from work, you would naturally come up with an algorithm yourself — get it?
How algorithms rule the internet
Remember how I told you an algorithm is just a problem-solving formula? Every algorithm lurking on the internet was made to solve a specific problem. This is why every time you google the most absurd question, Google’s search algorithm will nonetheless attempt to find an answer by narrowing down your web search to what it deems relevant — and that’s a problem solved.
As for that dress you ordered online, and probably feel guilty for splurging on — I won’t blame you — it’s those pesky algorithms. Let’s vilify algorithms for merely following their programming — all the Shein algorithm did was sort through millions of dresses to offer you irresistible recommendations that lured you back to the store. The loop continues…
On social media, algorithms are the reason why someone could easily tell your political affiliations or that you are a cat lover by just spending time on your feed. There’s no magic trick to it. The connection is this: on social media, what problem do you think algorithms solve? It’s easy — how do you get people to socialise over the internet? And maybe get them hooked while at it. The solution is equally simple — use their data to drive personalised content their way. That should keep them busy. Hence, the pattern of cat videos that any mindful person would notice on your TikTok feed — no foul play here.
However, if we focus only on these “benefits,” we may lose sight of the dark side of using the power of algorithms — especially as it is motivated by capitalist greed. Surely, algorithms bring some efficiency to the internet — but what’s the catch?
Are algorithms bad for us?
Alas, you are left wondering if loss of privacy is the last instalment we shall all pay on this mortgage of our humanity. The simple answer is no. If not, this would have been a clichéd piece on the loss of privacy in modern life — that’s nothing new. Anyway, other devastating trade-offs often accompany using these moles to burrow the internet.
One is boredom. But how? Isn’t there more stuff on the internet than ever before? Yes, but the answer is not exactly black or white. Usually, when you stumble across an algorithm on the internet, the crafty ones start to mimic you from your data so they can send personalised content your way. I don’t know about you, but I sure get fed up with seeing cat videos all over my social media.
If I remember the saying right, “too much of anything can be tiring” — even the things you like, or in this case, things an algorithm thinks you like. This is the “tunnel-vision effect,” a result of your algorithm simply responding to its programming to feed you only relevant content. As we speak, you are probably stuck in a rabbit hole reading about algorithms on the internet — snap-out! Admirably, YouTube has tried to side-step this problem by offering a New to you feature for its users to freshen things up whenever the algorithm becomes sickening.
From an entirely different perspective, this rigidity that characterises algorithms creates an issue of control for the users. In what way? As a user of an algorithm, you are limited to just the information that the algorithm provides — making you subject to the algorithm’s code. Now the question is this — who’s in charge?
But the mole is merely acting on your instructions, right?
Yet, I smell a rat, and the clue is capitalist greed. In exchange for using their algorithms, big tech corporations often gain access to your data — and in case you haven’t heard, that’s the new gold. In the ad-based internet economy, these corporations make a killing off trading your data. Your mole serves yet another master. Hence, the endless conspiracy theories that we are being listened to by our computers — that’s another way to put it.
Nevertheless, as the compromise between man and technology shifts more and more in favour of technology, it seems likely that the cautionary tale of the Matrix will become relevant. The thinking which underpinned the Matrix film when it was first released 23 years ago remains true now in the 21st century as our reliance on newer and smarter technology increases.
What’s next? Artificial Intelligence?
A way forward?
But, the point of this write-up isn’t just to scold humanity for playing too much with its shiny new toy — that would just be lazy writing from a tech sceptic. Admittedly, algorithms have made the world a better place with the efficiency they deliver in various fields. However, it’s high time we stop thinking of algorithms as zeros and ones alone and start thinking of them as they practically affect people.
On the safe presumption that humanity is at the heart of any good invention, there’s a clear need to lessen some of the negative effects of algorithms on people. This could be done through tighter data privacy laws to protect the consumers of online digital products. Also, just as YouTube has exemplarily shown, a compromise that is suited for algorithm use is a little ‘randomness.’ It would do us all good to keep things fresh on the internet by taking the metaphoric red pill sometimes. Just hit shuffle.