All posts by Gary C. Woodward

Putting Only 45 Cards on the Table

                              Source: Annalect

This is what the erosion of personal choice can look like.  We may not act on the best options available, because others are choosing them.

In the West we cherish the idea of individual freedom.  We act on the belief that we have ‘agency.’ That’s to say, the choices that matter are ours alone to make.  It’s a basic tenet of American life. Within the broad boundaries set by a civil society, no one has the right to deny or ignore them. But we are beginning to hear more for mathematician’s and others about “decisions” that are not as informed or self-generated as we may think.

Hannah Fry, a mathematician at University College, London has written about “tiny decisions on our behalf” that can be made without our blessing or our awareness. In an interview in reproduced in Vox, she notes that algorithms now effect many functions within our lives: “From what we choose to read and watch to who we choose to date, algorithms are increasingly playing a huge role. And it’s not just the obvious cases, like Google search algorithms or Amazon recommendation algorithms.”(Vox, October 1, 2018).

The broad palette of options presented to us from internet-based material have obviously been preselected, first and most obviously by advertisers who pay for high search placement, but also by algorithms used by internet providers to ostensibly match our interests.  If you have puzzled over why certain Facebook feeds go to some and not to others, you may have a growing sense that someone else is dealing the cards from a stacked deck. What someone sees at a given site is always a mystery: partly a function of the digital footprints we leave every time we double-click, but also because of unknowable algorithms.  We already know this, but its easy to forget about choices we never see.

By shifting decisions to mathematical formulas composed of triggering conditions we do not know we have essentially given up some of our autonomy.

At its most basic, an algorithm is just a formula for content selection that seems appropriate for a given consumer or class of consumers. It’s an efficient gatekeeping tool. And, to be sure, we have always had gatekeepers channeling some content in our direction and filtering out other items. But most of those decision-makers, especially in the news business, presumably use journalistic or source credibility standards for winnowing content.  Yet based on what I’ve seen from various feeds, its clear that those standards have been replaced by various triggers that have little to do with the quality of a given story.  For example, I see lots of stories of celebrity gossip from unknown “publications” on my Google Play, even though my interests lie elsewhere.

By shifting decisions to mathematical formulas composed of triggering conditions, we do not know what we have essentially given up.  Even a system truly based on probabilities and past practices is bound to yield results that are less than they should be. So when we are given “choices”—ranging from the best Asian restaurant “nearby,” to the most qualified news source for a specialized story—the recommendations are based on criteria we generally do not know.

All of this suggests that we have less to fear from robots than from programmed servers that only appear to be offering targeted information. In the 21st Century this is what the erosion of agency can mean.  Too often we are acting on options that have been set by others.

Celebrating Division

The trivia of inconsequential differences can and will turn us all into smaller versions of ourselves.

There was a very small item recently in the New York Times about the online ridicule faced by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was asked about his favorite kind of bagel.  Stating a preference about any New York icon is bound to produce second-guessing from those who want to parade their bonafides.  So, without missing a beat the press reported on the Twitter guffaws created by the Mayor’s expressed preference for a toasted whole wheat bagel from a Brooklyn bakery.  The infraction that brought out the smirks?  Apparently an authentic New Yorker never toasts a bagel.  It apparently sounds like what people might do in Boston, where de Blasio grew up.  To some, it’s almost as bad as eating pizza with a knife and fork, another supposed faux pas committed by the Mayor a few years ago.

The bagel kerfuffle is obviously a non-story.  And one can only guess that the Times was facing a light news day.  But there’s a lesson in the online comments that work people into a dither of useless vitriol.

We key on the terms of division in our rhetoric because it is a way to signal our status. We celebrate “us” more than “them.”  Others who are different are not allowed to be different.  They are too often renamed as impostors or poseurs. Their person-hood is devalued and their authenticity is judged in the language of a put-down. These days we seem to be carrying around a loaded quiver of arrows at the ready if another person has expressed preferences we’ve decided are fraudulent, or some form of misappropriation, or motivated by some imagined slight.

We now seem so quick to entertain the words of others who have found pleasure in the ridicule of others.  Its becoming a kind of candy for the mind. 

Most folks can still survive they day without denigrating the work, tastes, clothing or choices of others.  But fewer of us seem to be able to resist serving as willing bystanders to a ragged rhetoric of differences re-clothed as revelations of inauthenticity. Its becoming a kind of candy for the mind.

But wasting time and energy on ostensible violations of authenticity gets us nowhere.   And it would help if media would resist measuring every story using the measure of whether it can be framed as a pseudo conflict.

The trivia of inconsequential differences can and will turn us all into smaller versions of ourselves. Somehow and at some point Americans are going to have to grow up and leave the useless internet chatter behind.