The Age of Algorithms

There is no doubt that living in the Age of the Algorithm has transformed the way we make decisions. Mechanisation has saved the world time, money, and (in the case of the emergency services) even lives. In addition, there are obvious business and marketing advantages to using intelligent technology that claims to “personalise” our online experience and helps us find what we’re looking for. But are we at risk of letting the use of algorithms and ‘big data’ shape our decision-making, and influence our individuality?

In the late 1990s, book editors for Amazon were writing hundreds of reviews for the increasing number of books being published annually. With demand on staff increasing, Greg Linden, an engineer at the online retailer, used correlation data for products that were often bought together by consumers to create automatic recommendations. Ironically, whilst the algorithms used had the effect of creating a “personal” recommendation, in reality they were not linked in any way with the individual’s purchasing history, and so were devoid of anything classically categorised as personal. In spite of this, the effect this has had on sales since is undeniable, with estimates showing that currently a third of Amazon’s sales arise from these mechanised recommendations.

More recently, Facebook, a company that’s growth is due in part to its complex use of big data, has continued its global domination and grossed almost $6 billion in the first three quarters of 2016. Even more incredible is its 1.79 billion monthly active users, which make Facebook (a company claiming it isn’t in fact a media company) the most powerful media organisation in history. Scarily, Facebook’s “walled garden” approach to news feeds, paired with its goal to “deliver the right content to the right people at the right time” using controversially secret algorithms, means that our exposure to information is being restricted, albeit by the mechanised mirroring of our own choices.

It seems fair to surmise that the use of algorithms online can be a double-edged sword. No consumer can deny the convenience of such appropriate and tailored suggestions, nor is the effect that they have had on streamlining online services and augmenting profitability in business in question. However, at a point where big data weaves itself almost inextricably through facets of society people are beginning to ask themselves whether they really know what they’re looking for, and wondering how accurate these online assumptions can be. It seems that, as a result, in the midst of this Age of Algorithms, human sensibilities are still in demand.

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