Rule of the machines

It is incredible how a piece of code, a cyber-machine, takes a decision on what you see and what you don't on the web


R Swaminathan | March 16, 2012

James Cameron would be shocked out of his wits. The machines have finally taken over. And this time it’s real, not reel. These machines are not liquid metal, shape shifting and bullet gobbling T-1000 prototype that we all saw with a shudder in Terminator-2. That looks positively outdated in front of the new ones. About 2,000 lines of code of indeterminate physical shape, the new machines inhabit the cyber-world and do their work silently.

Hidden from plain sight it’s extremely difficult to spot their handiwork, but it’s not impossible. Contrary to the popular image of being a blood sport, boxing is a highly technical and tactical game. Men who spend hours perfecting their smarts, sways and hooks acquire the ability to punch way above their weight. That’s what makes the sport so democratic in nature. It gives everyone a chance, much like the Internet where one can effectively put across a point of view amidst a gazillion others. Internet gives an individual the boxing’s equivalent of extended reach. In popular imagination Internet is a democratic space where differing points of view jostle for attention and, theoretically, has an equal chance to be picked, chosen, examined, adopted, and also discarded.

Mention the world’s greatest boxer and one will probably have Muhammed Ali doing a ‘dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee’ routine in your head. But for boxing aficionados, like yours truly, who have grown up devouring every scratch of information available on boxing records, bouts and vital statistics, Teofilo Stevenson is right up there with Ali. A product of the Cuban boxing system, Stevenson rejected an offer of $5million and that too in 1972, a substantial sum for that day and age, from the notorious US promoter Don King to defect and become professional. He famously chose Fidel Castro’s Red over Uncle Sam’s Green.

On Internet forums and social networking groups dedicated to boxing, for every ten Ali fans there would be a couple of Stevenson groupies, like me, holding the flag of dissent. Off and on there would be a Felix Savon fan, another Cuban boxer who rejected a truckload of American dollars, who would pit him against Ali and Stevenson and anoint him the greatest. It would be fairly be a no-holds barred debate. Internet reflected this diversity of opinions with reasonable accuracy till recently.

Now it’s just a carefully constructed illusion where cyber citizens are led into believing that the information being served to them is something that they have deliberately and autonomously chosen. It was alarmingly shattered when fellow boxing fanatics who held diametrically opposite points of view started disappearing from my dashboard. What was happening was that a piece of code was tracking my every single click and automatically deciding for me what I needed to see. In short, a cyber-machine was deciding for me what I had to consume by systematically eliminating points of view that it considered to be uninteresting for me.

No human being is uni-dimensional. In fact that’s what makes each one of us unique. We all have an inherent capacity, albeit in varying degrees, to accommodate different points of views. Divergent opinions are critical for rational decision making and for building up a knowledge base. Mathematics is an exact science. So is mathematical modeling, despite attempts to introduce the X factor to try and account for what Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes as the Black Swan phenomenon. Algorithms are mathematical equations that try and approximate a complex cauldron of different points of view, emotions, rational and irrational decisions that constitutes a human being. It’s extremely good at black and white decisions, but incredibly poor at identifying shades of grey that define mankind.

Internet giants call the use of algorithms to filter data and information as personalisation. According to industry buzz Google, for instance, tracks 57 signals – from the model of your computer, geographical location, movement of your eye, where you are sitting, what you are clicking, time you spend on a particular page – to determine what needs to be served to you. You and I could be entering the same keyword, but would be served different pages.

Executive Chairman of Google Eric Schmidt admits as much saying it will be hard for people to watch or consume something that has not been ‘tailored’ for them. Tailoring per se is not the issue. When you open a newspaper or a magazine in the morning a bunch of men and women have carefully chosen your spread. But when a piece of code, which doesn’t understand human emotions, selects what you need to consume based on a mathematical interpretation of black and white, the implications for knowledge and information exchange are far-reaching.

Algorithms are rapidly reducing the web of inter-connected people with diverse interests into a web of one dominated with a single monochromatic vision. It’s like a vibrant colour photograph suddenly morphing into a black and white one. To understand its dire implications for democracy imagine an important and necessary public debate on Lok Pal bill being coloured for you by a single overwhelming point of view simply based on what you clicked most. Of course what you clicked most depends on what you clicked first, which will determine what will be served to you next. So it’s like sitting down to an algorithm-driven meal where if you start eating the dessert first, the likelihood of you being served dessert again increases exponentially.  

Once Mark Zuckerberg was asked about the ‘me-only’ world Facebook promoted. He nonchalantly justified it saying “A squirrel dying in front of your house might be more relevant right now that people dying in Africa.” What he failed to mention was that a piece of code will determine that relevance. That single piece code today is everywhere. It tracks you, stores your moves, logs your location, identifies your device, reads your mail and also determines what you will consume.  Maybe that’s good enough for squirrels, but is it good enough for humans? n

R. Swaminathan is a National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) Fellow. He is also a Senior Fellow in Observer Research Foundation (ORF). A dyed-in-wool digital native, he is one of the few surviving members of the original tribe of Internet crazies who used floppy diskettes, DOS prompts and WordStar



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