Blog: Are algorithms shaping the way we think?
They know everything about me- which music I want to tune into, which items I should purchase, which holiday destinations should I plan etc. etc.- the list is endless. A few days ago I was being constantly bombarded with some hard-to-ignore ads of lingerie on my computer while sitting next to one of my male colleagues. I cursed myself then for not having the sufficient energy to stop google from tracking me.
It’s not a surprise anymore that algorithms know us substantially more than we might want to reveal, but the constant fear of being watched over is something that I haven’t been able to consume yet. Even more disrupting is realization of the fact that I am no more than just a marketing product for companies who hold all that information about me.
We have invited algorithms practically everywhere, from hospitals and schools to courtrooms. A few lines of code determine where we go, what we buy and whom should we marry. While the big tech companies are feeding their respective algorithms with data and teaching their AI systems to be more like us, we are tending to behave more like them. Consider this:
1) From products to people: Amazon revolutionized the e-commerce industry by teaching us new ways of browsing and comparing products, eventually leading to a purchase. What began as a platform intended to improve our shopping experience has found its applications into the arena of human relationships too. I find dating today to be much like online shopping. Enabled by similar apps, we browse and compare the endless options available, and tap into the one that fits our desires perfectly. Over the web, the world has become an infinite supply of products, and now, people.
2) Quantifying interactions: The obsession to get more views, likes and shares on our social media posts says it all about our addiction to digital scores. This association with algorithms has bewildered us with the ability to reduce nearly every real-life experience into a range of 1-to-5. Most incredible is the sense of urgency with which we do it- the other day I had barely finished my food when the restaurant waiter peeped in to say- “Madam, please rate us on Zomato.” To make it worse, each rating seems to have replaced the reality that it refers to. Somehow the digital review feels more real, and certainly more meaningful, than the actual, real-life experience.
3) Stimulating the FOMO factor: We are exposed to so much of what other people are doing that it feels like questioning our own choices- not just when it comes to decisions like iPhones vs Android, but even in life stages. If my best friend from school is in a committed relationship already, am I waiting too long? If my software engineer cousin does several business trips, should I have picked a more lucrative career? Technically, it is called FOMO i.e. Fear of Missing out. As a real psychological issue, it typically happens when you see pictures, videos or posts from your friends who appear to be doing things that are more fun and exciting while you are into something ordinary. Naturally, you feel like you are missing out on something.
Don’t get me wrong. Being a software engineer myself, I am all for technology but the buck would stop at us if we operate and think exactly as the algorithm intended us to. While most of us might presume that the most imminent threat is about AI taking over the world, I strongly feel that the even greater danger is technology replacing the very qualities that make us human.