Late last year, Slate published a story about the way Facebook was sorting users emails. Facebook’s argument was that to help personalize messages they would filter important messages into one place and unimportant messages into another. How did they decide what’s important? Algorithms.
Algorithms are a series of if-then scenarios. These algorithms ask “if” questions about data from your Facebook account and make “then” decisions based on the “if.” For example, “if” the sender as a friend of a friend, “then” her message will show up in your standard message folder. If not, then it goes into a secondary folder. Things like that.
The rationale behind the algorithm makes sense on some level. Maybe you don’t want strangers emailing you. That’s called spam. But the point isn’t whether the decision is good or bad, right or wrong. The point is who made the decision? You or an algorithm?
Outsourcing decisions is the purpose of most technology. It makes decisions for you—mainly by deciding how the work gets done. Technology determines procedure. Technology is, in fact, a bundle of decisions and procedures. Technology can’t not function this way. If it did, then it wouldn’t be technology. (How’s that for an if-then scenario?) Our job is to see these bundles for what they are, to understand these decisions and procedures.
Algorithms don't decide strictly either-or matters though. Algorithms can also prioritize information—just like those Facebook messages. Consider another example. Search results are personalized based on algorithms. Search engines like Netflix look at your search history, ask if-then questions, and make suggestions based on the algorithm’s results. By tracking and aggregating the data we as users give them, they even predict how many stars you will give it. Behind this is the decision that your past movies searches indicate what you’re likely to want. The algorithm assumes that individuals tend to be monolithic. Do you feel monolithic? I find individuals to be surprisingly varied in their interests. But search engines display results based on these simplifications about human nature.
Technology’s priorities aren’t limited to high-tech algorithms on the Internet though. Out my window, I’m watching cars speed by. I have to look both ways before crossing that street. Why? Because streets are for cars, not for people. This wasn’t always the case. A hundred years ago, if you had asked people what a street was for, you would have had multiple answers. Today, streets are exclusively the car’s rightful domain. People and “street vendors” are relegated to sidewalks. Cars have priority, but why?
One reason is safety. We don’t want people to be hit by speeding cars. This makes sense. But behind this is the assumption that cars should go fast enough to kill people. Well, that’s not how we say it, but that’s part of the truth. We want to be able to drive cars fast so that we can get there sooner. We want to save time.
Saving time is the bottom line with all technology. Our decisions and procedures are aimed at that single goal. Personalize search results help you find what your looking for faster. Car-only streets clear the way for uninhibited travel. Even street lights serve this purpose, which you quickly realize when the power goes out and it turns into a right-of-way intersection. All technology helps us get things done faster. Efficiency is the end of all technology. We want to save time so that we can spend it elsewhere.
Of course, there are other intermediate reasons that technology has. Orbitz recently acknowledged that its search results vary depending on whether your using a Mac or a PC. How do the results differ? Well, by tracking and aggregating the data we as users give them, Orbitz has determined that Mac users are more willing to spend more for a nicer hotel. So Orbitz shows them higher-priced options first. Not for the same hotels or the same flights, but for nicer ones. Mac users can still find the same low-price deals; those just aren’t the first results to come up. It’s an algorithm thing. If you have a Mac, then you might be willing to pay more for a nicer hotel.
Yes, you still can find and choose the cheaper prices, but your technology is deciding which options you see first. Now we can chalk this story up to a greedy corporate board, but it’s just an algorithm responding to some data, right? Well, no, not exactly. Someone’s deciding, but it’s not you.