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Me and the Algorithms

Posted On: May 9, 2014

My wife laughed at me.

Why? Well, I’d mentioned reading an article online about an animation company then I went to another newspaper site and found an ad for that same animation company in the side bar.

“Wow,” I thought out loud, “what serendipity.”  That’s when  she laughed.

Geek that I am, I know that Google tracks our online behaviour and then provides that information to marketers so they can provide targeted advertising . I knew they did  this to other people, but I just didn’t really think they did it to me.

There’s something inherently disturbing in the idea that an algorithm can predict your behaviour. We’re all unique individuals. Sure, I may be part of a group, but I’m still unique, right?

We hear a lot about “big data” these days. Through big data, we can tailor information delivery to a user and filter out all of the stuff that person isn’t really interested in. It’s way more  effective than marketing the same thing to everyone.  But do we want to be categorized by advertisers, corporations, or governments? Do you want to be labeled a conservative,  liberal or dissenter? How could that information be exploited? Is Big Brother knocking at the door?

These are the questions that are being raised by whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. Our governments are listening. Is it for nefarious purposes? Probably not. A part of collecting information is to figure out efficient ways of delivering services. But, how do we know?

A part of me loves algorithms. When I first got iTunes a few years ago and began buying digital downloads I loved the recommendations iTunes delivered. Based on my choices, iTunes would suggest other listeners’ recommendations. These choices were amazing. It  opened up a new world of music  to me. Musicians that I would have never heard of were now added to my playlists.

Now you see these services everywhere: on Netflix, Amazon, dating sites,  and even on our own Volunteer site, GetInvolved.ca.

So what’s the problem? I think a part of it is prudishness. We’re sensitive about systems knowing our health history, sexual behaviour, and  private thoughts.  In a digital world, are we allowed to have private thoughts? Wouldn’t it be better to aggregate those private thoughts so systems could learn to maximize messages for our private selves? Starting to feel like you’re getting into a circular argument?

I think that at the heart of my issue with algorithms is  the fact that they’re closed systems. They reference existing data. It’s a bit like the 60’s British show, The Prisoner.  The lead character is trapped in a thoroughly pleasant British town, but can’t seem to escape.

“I’d like to meet the algorithm that thought we’d be a good match.”

Sure algorithms provide us with all these great choices, but you have to wonder if they erect digital walls around our thoughts and actions. How  can they provide us with outside-the-box thinking? Simply put, where will we find serendipity in a big data world?

Here is a link to a blog on privacy from our series PULL.

Curious to know the Top 10 algorithms that have entered our lives: The 10 Algorithms That Dominate Our World

 

 

He used to write, direct, shoot, edit … started Q in 2000 and grew the business so successfully that his talented staff took over all of his roles. Now Richard provides his wisdom on his blog Picture This!, plays Angry Birds, and oh yeah -- he juggles about 20 projects at once. Get to know Richard a little better ...

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