Are We Puppets in a Wired World?


Sue Halpern in The New York Review of Books: “Also not obvious was how the Web would evolve, though its open architecture virtually assured that it would. The original Web, the Web of static homepages, documents laden with “hot links,” and electronic storefronts, segued into Web 2.0, which, by providing the means for people without technical knowledge to easily share information, recast the Internet as a global social forum with sites like Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, and Instagram.
Once that happened, people began to make aspects of their private lives public, letting others know, for example, when they were shopping at H+M and dining at Olive Garden, letting others know what they thought of the selection at that particular branch of H+M and the waitstaff at that Olive Garden, then modeling their new jeans for all to see and sharing pictures of their antipasti and lobster ravioli—to say nothing of sharing pictures of their girlfriends, babies, and drunken classmates, or chronicling life as a high-paid escort, or worrying about skin lesions or seeking a cure for insomnia or rating professors, and on and on.
The social Web celebrated, rewarded, routinized, and normalized this kind of living out loud, all the while anesthetizing many of its participants. Although they likely knew that these disclosures were funding the new information economy, they didn’t especially care…
The assumption that decisions made by machines that have assessed reams of real-world information are more accurate than those made by people, with their foibles and prejudices, may be correct generally and wrong in the particular; and for those unfortunate souls who might never commit another crime even if the algorithm says they will, there is little recourse. In any case, computers are not “neutral”; algorithms reflect the biases of their creators, which is to say that prediction cedes an awful lot of power to the algorithm creators, who are human after all. Some of the time, too, proprietary algorithms, like the ones used by Google and Twitter and Facebook, are intentionally biased to produce results that benefit the company, not the user, and some of the time algorithms can be gamed. (There is an entire industry devoted to “optimizing” Google searches, for example.)
But the real bias inherent in algorithms is that they are, by nature, reductive. They are intended to sift through complicated, seemingly discrete information and make some sort of sense of it, which is the definition of reductive.”
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