The Line's Naughty List: Our new algorithmic overlords are out of control
Algorithmic control of information is the question of our age, whether by governments in authoritarian states, or by private corporations in the West.
We at The Line are, we admit, often a bit on the grumpy side. But there are wonderful, happy stories worth celebrating, and in the final week before Christmas, we celebrated a half-dozen of them here. Now, though, it’s time to get back to doing what we do best: pointing out all the bad things that we really ought to be fixing!
Today: Andrew MacDougall on how our monkey brains are getting zapped by amoral supercomputers.
By: Andrew MacDougall
Looking around the planet, there are a lot of things that suck. A lot.
There’s the tyrant Vladimir Putin, viciously humping his ex, Ukraine, like some kind of demented bear. Putin is feeding his own troops into the meat grinder while turning off the lights and heating for the tens of millions of Ukrainians who have stood fast against his aggression.
There’s a fierce cost-of-living crisis fuelled by the 40-year-high inflation eating into our paypackets, forcing too many to choose between fuel for their homes and fuel for their bodies. Here in Britain, where I live, it feels like the only people who are not on strike protesting over their pay are the Black Cabs, probably because the trains are no longer running and people still need a way to get around.
There’s a COVID-wracked China scrambling to preserve their property-fuelled economic house of cards while looking anxiously across the strait of Taiwan at the nation they could be if they could ever free themselves from the grips of Xi Jingping’s increasingly authoritarian genocidal police state.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Donald Trump is selling NFTs to fuel his next presidential run against an octogenarian whose grip on government has loosened following his party’s (narrow) loss of the House of Representatives, all but ensuring two years of political gridlock when the world sure could use some good ‘ole American leadership on all of the issues listed above.
And then there’s Elon Musk and his (many) daily wanks over at Twitter, where the world is getting to witness the extreme arbitrariness of the control of public information in the early 21st century. It turns out giving mega-rich spectrum-dwelling obsessives their own information ecosystem is a bad thing.
As I was saying, that’s a lot of suck. An ocean of suck. That’s why I want to single out Spotify as the true cause of all of it.
Okay, fine. I don’t. Not really, anyway. Spotify is only to blame for the ocean of suck in your ears. Yes friends, it turns out putting absolutely everything anyone wants to record, no matter their ability, on a platform fuelled by recommendation algorithms isn’t a recipe for either good music or good taste. Instead, all you get is a pabulum of bang-average, with choruses now front-ending the songs because none of us are patient for anything to reveal itself to us over time. Everything is written to the algo’s rhythm.
Ah, the algorithm. The true villain of these sucky times. The villains we know so little about. The villains who control so much of what we see, hear and do. The villains nobody elected, who reside under private control, who can whip us into a frenzy more quickly than anyone we actually know. The villains who both radicalize and homogenize in equal measure. The viruses of our 21st-century society.
Don’t believe me?
Imagine Winston Churchill trying to command and lead his nation against Adolf Hitler and the unadulterated evil of Nazism in the age of algorithms. Imagine if Hitler had armies of bots spouting argumentative nonsense that could be placed in front of an army of useful idiots on the other side of the divide? Think the war would have been won in the same way, on the same timeline?
Think Xi Jingping could jail an entire class of people without the same? Think he could operate the Great Firewall of China without algorithmic arms and legs, thereby stifling the free speech the recent COVID protests show is clearly waiting to come out in the Middle Kingdom? Nor, for that matter, could the Chinese state operate its pervasive and insidious regime of social credit.
As with all innovation, the key is in the governance. Algorithms are neutral in that they can create good just as easily as they create bad; it all depends on who’s writing them. Indeed, the creation of the algorithmic control of information is the question of our age, whether by governments in authoritarian states, or by private corporations in the advanced Western economies. In a world where Google controls what information you find and Twitter, Meta and TikTok control what you’re shown and, to a large degree, how you feel, it is more important than ever that legislators get to grips with the algos. Put differently, if you're a politician who likes to bang on about “gatekeepers,” these are the gatekeepers you should be looking to haul before your committee of inquiry.
The sad thing is, most lawmakers have expressed little to no interest in coming to grips with our new(ish) information overlords. Most would rather cozy up to them and chuck up expensive taxpayer subsidies to attract their jobs. But if a license to operate is what the tech companies are truly after, the quid pro quo should be opening up the black magic box, because too much depends on how we crack the algorithmic nut.
And if that sounds over-cooked, consider how impossible politics has become to practice since the rise of social media and its algorithms. Politics is, by definition, impossible to practice without a common pool of information or set of facts. Sound familiar? But the tech companies prioritize engagement, not accuracy, and so is it any surprise now politicians respond to these imperatives? Should we really be surprised that “You suck,” “No, you suck,” has become the standard political discourse of our time?
Not that we had a chance; our weed-whacker brains are powerless against the hum of the supercomputer. As Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology likes to say: “We have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and God-like technology.” We need to learn to check our emotions and update our institutions to grapple with our new Gods.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. And as James McLeod so artfully laid out in these digital pages a little while ago, the internet is changing the very way our minds work. But if our minds are going to change how they work, shouldn’t we be the ones deciding how they change, via our elected representatives, instead of having those changes imposed on us by people we’ve never met and have no control over? To ask the question is to answer it.
I suppose the first useful thing a politician could do would be to back away from the algorithms. Then they could use their powers to scrutinize the technology we’ve allowed to spread everywhere. And if they’re feeling really punchy, they could step up to the plate and make some recommendations to clean up our polluted information economy.
And you know what? That wouldn’t suck.
Andrew MacDougall is a director at Trafalgar Strategy and former head of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
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