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The Algorithm Effect: How algorithms influence our decisions

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Do you sense that your phone knows a little too much about you? Or that a particular social media platform is able to see inside your head? You’re not alone. 

Algorithms. They are everywhere. And they can even go rouge.

Technology has come a long way. Whether we are aware of it or not, algorithms have become a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives. On our phones, tablets, smartwatches, as well as in many of the other digital devices we interact with, algorithms play a fundamental role in our digital lives. They not only make it possible for us to hail our Uber/Lyft/Bolt rides and decide who we should follow on social media, but they also select movies, music, TV series and other digital content for us to stream and consume. Algorithms in our GPS apps allow us to get from from point A to point B, in the most efficient manner. In fact, everything people see [1]do on the internet is a product of algorithms.

Although algorithms were created with the aim of optimizing everything, there is a growing concern that these nifty mathematical formulas, which undoubtedly make things easier, can also put too much control in the hands of third parties, more specifically governments and corporations.

These incredibly useful tools, utilized to accomplish anything from mundane errands to complex tasks, also have some far-reaching consequences. Research has discovered that these pieces of code have a tendency to create information bubbles, perpetuate bias, limit our choices, in addition to stifling our creativity and even controlling our destiny.

The GOOD

While the power of algorithms may sound a bit scary and feel slightly intellectually limiting, there is a more benevolent side to their use in everyday life. An algorithm is just a set of instructions; just a simple set of computer instructions. In addition to filtering searchers, algorithms do help us manage information overload.

They can also be used to handle a variety of benign tasks, such controlling an array of safety features in cars, helping us improve the effectiveness of energy-efficient home thermostat systems, as well as having the ability to give automated feedback to students on projects, assignments, and tests.

The BAD

Nevertheless, as useful as the decision-making and problem-solving ability of algorithms is, and the data they collect and use to make these decisions, does raise concerns about privacy, as well as a host of other issues. Particularly that algorithms may produce filter bubbles which create unfair outcomes and biased recommendations.

Every time you interact with a search engine, scroll through our social media feed or use GPS navigation, an algorithm is processing huge amounts of micro-data, which is then used to predict our behavior.

By tracking what you’ve liked, watched or clicked on in the past, an algorithm guesses what you’d like to see, and consequently shows you more of the same results. This results in a filter bubble, and as time goes on, you may only see the articles and information which you are used to seeing. Therefore, you’ll only be exposed to information with which you’re comfortable with.

The UGLY

The important thing to keep in mind is that algorithm-based products and services require massive amounts of personal data. This simple fact poses a new threat to personal privacy and security. These pieces of computer code in the systems we interact with are recording data about everything we do. They examine and make a note of every step you take online, from what websites you visit, to who you follow on social media, and who your friends are. They study what you scroll through, how long you spend on a certain post, and which links you ultimately decide click on and what articles you decide to read.  As a result, privacy is perhaps more vulnerable today than ever before. The algorithms are constantly aggregating, storing and analyzing pieces of data, in order to paint an eerily accurate picture of you, your interests, and habits. Then the system uses that data to choose what to show you.

The BOTTOM LINE

Products and services built around artificially intelligent algorithms offer a host of benefits to users, however, they also require vast amounts of personal data in return. Algorithms are excellent at helping us make efficient, data-driven decisions, but like anything else in life, they do come at a cost. When deciding to use product or service, it’s wise to consider the cost. As the saying goes, “If you’re not paying for the service, YOU ARE THE SERVICE.”[2] If you’re uneasy about how data about your interests, locations and shopping habits is used by entities you interact with, choosing products and services which protect your privacy is always an option. A modern, minimalist phone, such as the Mudita Pure, provides all the essential functionalities, without all the unnecessary distractions and privacy intrusions we’ve come to expect from traditional smartphones, as well as some feature phones.  

Recently, we discussed the power of privacy as well as the implications of constantly sharing your location data with tech companies in two articles on our blog:

Today, more and more people recognize how algorithms power social and commercial networks and consumers are paying more attention to how their private information is aggregated, stored, and exploited for profit. 

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