The algorithm has determined that you want to read this article – why?

It’s been the magic word in Silicon Valley for a decade: algorithms. But what exactly is an algorithm? And why do we often hear it in a negative context? In this article, we explain the algorithm completely to you.

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What is an algorithm?

It seems like the whole (digital) world revolves around one thing these days: Algorithms. But what is it really? In the simplest sense, an algorithm is nothing more than a step-by-step plan to achieve a goal. Your math problems are basically algorithms, but so is your grandmother’s delicious lasagna recipe. An algorithm is therefore not by definition a technical term. Yet we often hear it in this context.

In recent news about tech companies and social media, we hear this term all too often. Read on to find out why tech companies like Apple use a lot of algorithms.

Why tech companies love algorithms

Algorithms are often mentioned in the same breath as large data sets. Everything you do on the Internet is done through cookies and other software stores a mountain of digital information. This consists of all your Google searches, the videos you watch and which advertisements have your interests. The big tech companies also store where you watch this, when you watch this and how long you watch a video or image. This is commonly called simply ‘data’.

Tech companies then use this inexhaustible mountain of information to automate certain processes. This automation step is in the hands of the company’s algorithm. In the digital world, it is primarily about tailoring ads to each individual. In addition to selling devices and subscriptions, it also holds the big money for tech companies.

This in itself is not a bad process. Creating a personalized advertising profile through all the mountains of data from all 8 billion people is a job that no genius can and will not undertake. Therefore, this is automated via algorithms. For example, we don’t have a team of marketing specialists who have placed the above matching ad there specifically for you. No, a computer does that automatically. We only specify that an ad should appear there.

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Why does ‘algorithm’ get such negative news?

Algorithms are therefore unavoidable on many of the platforms we use, especially if we want to organize large mountains of information. But that is where the pitfall with algorithms lies and is the very reason why this word is so often negatively in the news. Because of the automation of this ‘micro-decision making’, sometimes important or harmful things are overlooked.

Problem 1: Companies keep everything about you

The first issue is privacy. Your data is used for algorithms. And as you read above, this data consists of your entire online actions. By pressing certain buttons (Terms and Conditions) you give permission for technology companies to do this with your online presence. In return, you can use a website for free.

Accept this cookies happening so quickly that most of humanity is unaware of what is being collected about them. But what harm can it do? We explain this with the help of an example. There are data traders who calculate ‘credit scores’ with your data. This is a numerical system that indicates whether you can repay a loan. If you’ve ever gotten into debt, in these data sets it can haunt you forever. Although this type of practice is illegal, the (Dutch) legislation is not updated enough to address all these new types of data traders.

Data trading in itself is not a wrong process. It is only the laziness with which we allow our data to be sold by these vendors that makes things difficult. There are always people who move on the edge of the law and ethics. The fact that the government (and yourself) have little or no insight into this often makes the business of data trading dubious.

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Problem 2: Automation does not mean error-free

Speaking of the Dutch government; this has faced the second major problem with algorithms in recent years; mistakes are made by letting an algorithm run free and removing human control. The by now well-known ‘compensation affair’ is the best example of how a digital algorithm can destroy the lives of thousands of people. Without going very deep into this subject (there are bookcases full of books written on this complex subject), we can explain it very briefly:

Due to the automation of data, names have been mistakenly put on a ‘blacklist’ around all kinds of public services. Because there was no longer any human control between them, these people were unfairly deeply indebted to a computer and therefore to an algorithm.

Okay, this award might be a bit too big of an ethical and philosophical issue for this article, but it paints a good picture of how algorithms can have big consequences. In addition, there is something like code bias. This means that everyone is biased in some way. So are the authors of the code behind an algorithm. This can have huge consequences and even lead to racism and discrimination. The movie Coded Bias (on Netflix) illustrates this complex ethical issue very well.

TikTok ban

Your favorite apps on your iPhone also use algorithms. Whether it’s TikTok, Instagram or the innocent-looking Netflix and Spotify, all the apps on your phone automate their content. This gives you the content you want to see and these companies don’t need to hire millions of employees to show you these videos and songs. But behind this inventive leadership there is naturally also a dark side.

Task 1 with social media algorithms: polarization

The algorithm behind TikTok or Instagram can have major consequences for the user experience and the users’ well-being. One of the biggest dangers of the algorithm behind TikTok and Instagram is that it can lead to a “filtered reality” (filtered reality).

Because the algorithm is designed to recommend videos and images that are relevant to the user and capture attention, this can lead to a situation where users only see content that matches their interests and preferences. This can lead to a distorted view of reality and a lack of exposure to different opinions and perspectives.

In fact, we have already seen many examples of this. For example, Russia interfered in the US election through this online polarization via these ‘social media islands’, and Twitter today is far from a safe place for deliberate discussion.

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Problem 2 with social media algorithms: privacy

The algorithm can also lead to a lack of privacy. Because the algorithm is designed to track users and learn about their interests and preferences, it can lead to a situation where users are overwhelmed by targeted ads. This can lead to a feeling of discomfort due to a lack of privacy for users. You have probably already experienced it yourself; you talk (or think) about a certain product all day long and then see it appear on your Instagram timeline.

Problem 3 with social media algorithms: addiction

One of the main changes that you yourself probably notice about the super-efficient algorithm of Instagram and TikTok is: addiction. There is an increase in the amount of time users spend on these platforms. Because the algorithm is designed to recommend videos and images that are relevant to you and hold attention, it can lead to a situation where you stay longer and longer on TikTok and Instagram. Of course, this doesn’t have to be the case with you, but it can’t be wrong for some addictive users to experience these endless feed to limit cat videos as well.

Conclusion: Algorithms are okay, but there are limits

Algorithms are therefore in principle harmless and can even be useful in many situations. One of the main advantages of algorithms is that they can make quick and accurate decisions. Because they are designed to automate specific tasks and recognize patterns in large amounts of data.

Although algorithms are essentially harmless, there are always downsides to consider. It is therefore important that you are aware of all the consequences of using algorithms and that the government takes the right measures to protect us from the negative consequences. What do you think about this automation of the world?

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