The Algorithmic Self

Frank Pasquale in The Hedgehog Review:“…For many technology enthusiasts, the answer to the obesity epidemic—and many other problems—lies in computational countermeasures to the wiles of the food scientists. App developers are pioneering behavioristic interventions to make calorie counting and exercise prompts automatic. For example, users of a new gadget, the Pavlok wristband, can program it to give them an electronic shock if they miss exercise targets. But can such stimuli break through the blooming, buzzing distractions of instant gratification on offer in so many rival games and apps? Moreover, is there another way of conceptualizing our relationship to our surroundings than as a suboptimal system of stimulus and response?
Some of our subtlest, most incisive cultural critics have offered alternatives. Rather than acquiesce to our manipulability, they urge us to become more conscious of its sources—be they intrusive advertisements or computers that we (think we) control. For example, Sherry Turkle, founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, sees excessive engagement with gadgets as a substitution of the “machinic” for the human—the “cheap date” of robotized interaction standing in for the more unpredictable but ultimately challenging and rewarding negotiation of friendship, love, and collegiality. In The Glass Cage, Nicholas Carr critiques the replacement of human skill with computer mediation that, while initially liberating, threatens to sap the reserves of ingenuity and creativity that enabled the computation in the first place.
Beyond the psychological, there is a political dimension, too. Legal theorist and Georgetown University law professor Julie Cohen warns of the dangers of “modulation,” which enables advertisers, media executives, political consultants, and intelligence operatives to deploy opaque algorithms to monitor and manipulate behavior. Cultural critic Rob Horning ups the ante on the concerns of Cohen and Turkle with a series of essays dissecting feedback loops among surveillance entities, the capture of important information, and self-readjusting computational interventions designed to channel behavior and thought into ever-narrower channels. Horning also criticizes Carr for failing to emphasize the almost irresistible economic logic behind algorithmic self-making—at first for competitive advantage, then, ultimately, for survival.
To negotiate contemporary algorithms of reputation and search—ranging from resumé optimization on LinkedIn to strategic Facebook status updates to OkCupid profile grooming—we are increasingly called on to adopt an algorithmic self, one well practiced in strategic self-promotion. This algorithmic selfhood may be critical to finding job opportunities (or even maintaining a reliable circle of friends and family) in an era of accelerating social change. But it can also become self-defeating. Consider, for instance, the self-promoter whose status updates on Facebook or LinkedIn gradually tip from informative to annoying. Or the search engine−optimizing website whose tactics become a bit too aggressive, thereby causing it to run afoul of Google’s web spam team and consequently sink into obscurity. The algorithms remain stubbornly opaque amid rapidly changing social norms. A cyber-vertigo results, as we are pressed to promote our algorithmic selves but puzzled over the best way to do so….(More)