We are all Truman Burbanks.
In The Truman Show, Truman (Jim Carey) discovers that his life is a reality television show, crafted by scriptwriters and played out by professional actors.
Well in the digital world, we are all Truman Burbanks, except algorithms replace scriptwriters, actors and TV shows.
In fact, some algorithms have been designed precisely to do that! Machines being our only gateway to access the digital reality, their most important task possibly is to find what we are looking for in the hundreds of Terabytes available. We rely increasingly on them to discover what’s out there but, as in the Master and the Slave story, we are increasingly becoming our machine’s slaves.
The two main consequences of these are the Spiral of Silence, and accrued power in the hands of a few.
The Spiral of Silence: taking control
In networks where content is user-generated, you are shown a selection of this user-generated content, made by a News Feed algorithm,. We couldn’t possibly keep up with everything our friends say, so algorithms were engineered to filter the posts they think we will like seeing.
Intuitively, those networks should allow people to share opinions they wouldn’t dare sharing in real life – much as dating websites allow us to hit on women we would sometimes not dare hitting on in real life. But in fact, a report published in August 2014 by the Pew Research Internet Project showed that they end up having the opposite effect. Not only do we restrain from voicing our dissenting opinion online, but there is a spillover effect where people share less opinions in real life when they realize that their opinion is dissenting with the online majority.
This is scary as it is, but it gets worse: how do people realize that their opinions are dissenting with the online majority? By looking at the sample of their friends posts … selected by the News Feed algorithms! So not only are News Feed algorithms crucial to keep up with our friends, but they also influence our beliefs, our opinions and our willingness to share them both online and in real life.
With radio, television and newspapers, claiming our discontent is as easy as changing the channel or buying another newspaper. Facebook and Twitter having arguably no serious competition, we should get toolkits to control more of their News Feed algorithms.
Accrued power in the hands of a few: digital separation of powers
Google Search, as any search algorithm, is another example. It relies on previous searches, what we click on, the websites we visit, packaging this information into “cookies” and storing it in our computers (if you’re using Firefox, track’em with Lightbeam). Its goal is to find the content we are looking for or, more accurately, the content it thinks we are looking for.
Most of the time, it’s right: nobody goes to page 2 of Google’s results (Someone asked Quora: less than 10% in 2009). But this algorithm also introduces a bias called the “Filter Bubble” and you can hear Eli Pariser explain it better than I would.
My concern is slightly different: I think always asking the same media to get the information we’re looking for is very dangerous. It used to be call propaganda, and that’s why freedom of the press is so important in our civilization: to divide the power of curation and selection between many people and ensure the diversity of what’s out there.
Putting so much power in Google’s hands gives them an irresistible incentive to deviate from being an objective platform: at one point, we will realize that they made a (honest) mistake and created a bias for their users. What then? In my opinion, this is a point that Filter Bubbles fail to capture.
Power corrupts people, in the real world and in the digital world alike, and it is high time for us to think of a digital separation of powers.
The broader debate : Net Neutrality, the Open Source alternative
In the Truman Show, Truman embarks on a journey to unveil the truth about his life. I say it’s time for us to embark on a journey as well: promoting Net Neutrality is a step, demanding that those algorithms be Open Source is another one, and those are both journeys worth considering.
Allowing online companies to be monopolies is putting a tremendous amount of power into the hands of very few people. This is the broader debate I think we need to have. The (provocative) ultimate goal? “Own the means of production” …