The Algorithm Is Not Our Friend

on Thursday, Sep. 15th

How did we get so stupid?

This is the question we will be asking ourselves in 2022, assuming we’ve still got enough active brain cells left to collectively come up with the thought. The answer will be simple: we let algorithms do our big thinking for us.

We should have seen it coming. Hell, we did see it coming.

From James Cameron’s Terminator to Bill Joy’s grey goo prognostications we collectively saw the threat that out of control technology poses to our society. Only we were on the lookout for killer robots and nanoparticle clouds that consume everything in their path. What we really should have been looking for is the zombie virus that is eating away at our neocortex: those friendly, neighborhood algorithms.

Melodramatic? Sure. But when was the last time you were conscious of just how much of your everyday life is being shaped by sleepless, flawed mathematical formulas that are continuously sifting through data in order to present back a picture of reality to you? Maybe you’ve been bit by a the same bug I have, and it happens to you every time you open up—usually under duress—Facebook.

Facebook has built an empire on the strength of algorithms. Much in the way Google did before it. It is on Facebook, however, with the sheer amount of time online users spend within its garden walls, that the broken nature of algorithms becomes apparent.

For the better part of the year Facebook was experimenting with having human editors tend to the Trending section of the website.

In terms of the overall footprint of the site it’s a small bit of real estate, yet the promise that what’s “trending” is of importance is a fundamental assumption of social media. The use of human editors ended up being scandalous for two reasons. The first is ridiculous: in Silicon Valley the use of human intelligence over artificial intelligence is seen as a weakness. Never mind that these companies are trying to make products for people. Everything that can be done to get pesky meatbags out of the equation is a good thing to the kings of venture capital.

The second reason, and the one that killed the practice, was a perception on the Right end of the political spectrum that Facebook editors were suppressing conservative voices. That “playing the refs” is straight out of the very successful activist Right playbook is a totally different topic of conversation. The hint that there was editorial bias inside the Trending system was enough to get the team of curators sacked.

The product we’ve been left with is a beautiful example of how stupid algorithms are. On the one hand the simple fact that people are talking about something provides almost nothing of value without a summary. The current system requires a little effort on the part of the user to find out why people are talking about something. Which is annoying but not inherently bad. I can’t in good faith argue against requiring some action from users if—Spoiler Alert—I’m going to make a case that user agency should be valued over automation.

No, the truly telling fact is how few people it requires to get something trending. As few as 2,000 people—out of the 1.7 billion-plus active Facebook users—are enough to move the needle. That’s 0.12%. It would be a joke if these kinds of things didn’t actually end up driving conversation.

Since the removal of the human curators the algorithm has coughed up patently false news stories more than once, all because people are talking about them. This suggests that it wouldn’t be too difficult to seize control of the online narrative by spinning up an echo chamber on a bogus story. It’s the oldest trick in the book: repeat a lie enough times and people will start to, if not believe it, then at least give it enough consideration that it distorts the debate.

All this because of a false faith in the wisdom of algorithms that are trained to observe crowds. We’ve seen extreme examples of what happens when algorithms are fed a steady diet of internet bullshit. Take “Tay,” the Microsoft chatbot that was twisted into racist caricature by Twitter trolls before getting put on ice.

Instead of putting all these programming resources into force feeding users “automated” news maybe these mighty tech companies could choose to find new ways to empower their users. To give us back some of the agency we’ve unwittingly bartered away in the name of the illusion of convenience. It used to be that every change at Facebook prompted massive complaints from the user base, but as people have learned that Facebook favors engagement data over vocal feedback the voices of the disenchanted have died down.

At this point I’ve got zero faith that there is anything that users can do to get Facebook to start yielding agency back to them. Nothing short of just walking away from the platform entirely, and we all know how likely that is. Perhaps the closest thing to a revolt those stuck in an attention economy can muster would be to just ignore the damn thing altogether.

If no one uses “Trending” it will go away. If folks shun algorithmically created “content” in favor of that which has a human touch the brains that control the wallets of these media companies—new & old—might just learn to favor the human touch.


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