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Algorithms: the good, the bad and the ugly

Algorithms are a funny thing.  People love to hate them.  They cause so many problems and are blamed for much of the chaos in today’s complex society, from conspiracy theories to racial and gender biases.  Yet, society cannot seem to live without them.  Algorithms are involved in almost every online interaction we have and with the rise of the internet and technology, there is no escaping them.  With that in mind, here’s a brief list of the good, the bad and the ugly side of algorithms and why we struggle to live with them but why we would also struggle to live without them.

So what is an Algorithm?

To quote Google “Algorithms are the computer processes and formulas that take your questions and turn them into answers.” They cut down its estimated “trillions” of web pages in order to find the most relevant information relating to your search. Pretty handy really.

The Good

The good thing about algorithms is that they are really handy and there are a number of benefits to them. Including:

  • Cutting choicesas humans striving for autonomy, we think this sounds bad. It’s really not. We don’t handle having a lot of choice very well; it’s stressful and can actually lead to greater levels of dissatisfaction. Algorithms help to manage these choices and remove the least relevant ones, allowing you to choose more wisely leading to greater levels of satisfaction. 
  • Assisting a number of important organisations – algorithms can perform seemingly miraculous tasks that humans are unable to. This has allowed healthcare providers, governments, banks etc to offer faster, cheaper, more equal and more personalised services to individuals.   

The Bad

Though there is a long list of pros (you just need to google ‘advantages of algorithms’ to see for yourself), there is a similarly long list of cons to algorithms. Some of these include:

  • Creating filter bubbles – this term refers to the results of the algorithms that dictate what we encounter online. Those algorithms create “a unique universe of information for each of us … which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information.” With so many sites offering personalised content based on a number of criteria, from gender to age to browsing history, we are often bombarded with articles and posts that confirm and support our current opinions and views. Thus, strengthening our own opinions and alienating people who have differing views.
  • Polarisation – as a result of these filter bubbles, algorithms have been held partially responsible for the increase in social and political divisions.  Driven by algorithms, people are steered into echo chambers of repeated and reinforced political and media content.  As a result, we see the same information over and over again. In addition, we tend to follow people with whom we share similar views which strengthens these opinions and creates a divide between the ingroup (all those who share these views) and the outgroup (everyone else who does not).  

The Ugly

And then there is the downright ugly side of algorithms which highlights some of the worst aspects of society. These are:

  • Biases – Algorithms have been found to perpetrate biases. It’s bad enough that we have our own biases which consciously or unconsciously affect what we think and feel. These biases, however, have been built into algorithms which continue to perpetrate them online. Justin Reich, executive director at the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, observed, “The algorithms will be primarily designed by white and Asian men – with data selected by these same privileged actors – for the benefit of consumers like themselves.” In addition, algorithms are set to program themselves in the future.  Meaning these biases will forever be built in to them and any system they create there on after. 
  • Deepening societal divides – with algorithms predicted to be a significant aspect of our future, the gap between the digitally savvy (usually the most well-off) and those who are not as technologically savvy (usually the least well-off) could widen.  Leaving the latter even more vulnerable in some ways. See our blog post on the ‘digital divide’ for more on this topic.

Yes, algorithms can be very helpful and have many positives. We have become so accustomed to them within our everyday lives that we would certainly struggle to live without them and we shouldn’t have to either. We should, however, be wary of the darker, uglier side of algorithms. We need to educate ourselves on how they work, where they are used and what biases are built into them; In order to recognise where we are perhaps being influenced by them.