Algorithmic custodians and the lazily indulgent

October 23, 2011

Now it may not be immediately obvious, but this picture contains one of the most dangerous of predators a Grizzly Bear. Its not something you would want to stumble over by mistake. Its a good illustration of one way by which we may miss the obvious namely camouflage. The data is available to us, but we don’t pay attention to it.

Camouflage is simply a part of nature, but its not the only one and its not the most dangerous. I got the idea for this post when Warwick Holder sent me a ling to a ted talk on bad science which has some great examples of situations where what is not said is more significant that what is. Such omission can have the intent to deceive, but it can also be a result of focus or concentration. We accept the first solution presented to us, few dig deeper.

Lets take a real case on this, the Arab Spring. Depending on where and what you read this can be presented as a spontaneous uprising or an event triggered by one self immolation. In practice its far more complex, and its dispositional with triggers rather than causal. The system was pre-disposed to suffer potentially catastrophic failure something of which the intelligence services and the world press were aware. The self-immolation had a catalyzing effect, but it wasn’t the cause. Now a lot of people accept that and claim it as a great example of who social media prevented the State from preventing knowledge of the uprising from spreading. Again its an important component but its not the big picture. Social media activists are frequently guilty of seizing on cases such as this to justify their more general ideological position but we need to be more careful. As critical is the simple fact that the various anti-government activists were highly proactive in going into the tougher and more deprived areas of Cairo as agitators, that most traditional of revolutionary activities. Our tendency to like simple (in practice simplistic) explanations is dangerous as it can lead to both false optimism and depressive inaction.

Now we can’t process everything so we rely on gatekeepers. In that respect social media has high validity in that it removes censorship, but it can also be dangerous due to rapid entrainment due to contagion but also as it can discourage more traditional investigative journalism. I was watching All the Presidents Men on a plane a few days ago, for the first time since it first came out when I watched it with University friends in a decaying cinema in windswept Morecambe. One of the things that struck me is the requirement for validation that is a constant emphasis from senior editors. The sense of responsibility to a public to validate facts. In a traditional journalistic environment (in which I do not include the sensation driven Murdoch Press) the custodian nature of their job is understood.

Now that leads me to my main concern. With social media are we transferring curation of truth from people to algorithms? Are we over dependent on the various tools that analyse and present material from the twitterverse and the blogosphere. As we increasingly go to a word where Google and others algorithmically interpret out use of the web to present what they think we want to see, rather than presenting what we need to see? The “web of one” may appear attractive, but it means the patterns of our use become the constraints that prevent us seeing what we didn’t know we needed to see. Are we creating a monster that will restrict our capacity for serendipity and increasing filter material that contradicts our ways of thinking about the world? Personalisation sounds attractive but it can easily become a form of perspective bias. The algorithmic gatekeepers of the web have no morality or concern, they are simply tools for the lazily indulgent who do not wish to be bothered with challenge. One can only hope that there are enough Grizzly Bears out there to kill of those who dumb down human intelligence in this way, ideally before they breed.

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