How much our daily lives and activities rely on algorithms…well, it is overwhelming. You may not quite understand what an algorithm is, but that does not mean you are quite free of its influence. As our digital presence in this life increases, more aspects of our everyday lives are ruled by these mysterious mechanisms.
Algorithms are not exclusively digital. An algorithm is an arranging of step-by-step instructions, designed to perform a certain task. In a nutshell, a process of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer – but not only. This is not just ‘a math thing’, because algorithms determine who gets a promotion or a mortgage, who gets released early from prison, the kind of information you get on your news feed, which political ads you see (and which you do not) on Facebook…the list is endless.
This concern us all.
We do we rely so heavily on these mechanisms? Algorithms are, in fact, faster and more efficient than humans. Now, whether faster is always more conscientious, or efficient means better…that is up to debate. Algorithms are capable of performing complicated vector analysis and odds calculi, but they have proven to be not so ‘efficient’ at tasks such as image recognition and non-biased translation.
Back in the Middle Ages, the Church was the undisputable ruler. Its power was vast for many reasons, and one of them was the way it monopolized knowledge. In the year 1000 AC books were produced and copied by monks, secluded in sinister abbeys. The vast majority of the Western world was catholic, but also could not read. Also, the Bible was in Latin (the language of the clergy) and the common folk could not understand it. The only ones who understood it were the priests, and people had to rely on their taking on the scriptures.
Still, every aspect of people’s lives was conducted by the rules of a religion they could not even grasp first-handedly.
Then, during the Late Middle Ages (around 1250 BC), some ‘troublemakers’ started asking for a Bible people could actually understand. Literacy had spreaded among the intellectual laity, and the claims for a Bible for the common people were soon heard. Oxford academician John Wycliffe advocated for the people’s right to have a Bible in their own language, to avoid corrupt and derelict interpretations of the scriptures.
In the early times of the print press, William Tyndale (1494-1536) translated the scriptures into English and made great efforts to distribute copies. However, he did not get the blessing of the church: Tyndale was deemed heretic and burned at the stake for his sins.
Burning fellow citizens at the stake may be a thing of the past, but the struggle is renewed with every technological shift. In 1597, Sir Francis Bacon said ‘knowledge is power’: computer scientist Newton Lee nailed it when he said ‘information is power – disinformation is abuse of power’.
I am currently pursuing my degree in Communication Science and, so far, the subject that made the strongest impression on me was Right to Information. This branch of Law deals with matters which are of the essence at this time and age: privacy, data security, access to public information, etc. Legislation on this matter may vary from country to country, but the core is more or less universal.
“Right to Information aims to make more information available, provide equal access to information across all sectors of the community, and provide appropriate protection for individuals’ privacy.”
[Office of the Information Commissioner, Queensland.]
Citizens need information to exercise their citizenship, and this is why information is the base of every democratic system. But commercial media is not the sole information provider, or at least it should not be. The Government is also responsible for what has come to be referred as public information.
“Public information is all information originating from the field of work of the public sector bodies and occurring in the form of a document, a case, a dossier, a register, a record or other documentary material”.
According to this, every citizen is entitled to access files containing government management. Let us remember that administrations use algorithms too, because they are very useful at handling bureacratic information.
“For example, an American prisoner had to sit longer than comparable prisoners because the algorithm, which establishes a risk score, gave him an inexplicably high outcome. And unlike the decisions made by a judge, it turns out to be virtually impossible to challenge the assessment of an algorithm.”
[VPRO documentary, YouTube.]
And this is just the public sector. Administrations should disclose the details of their algorithms’ functioning, so the public can spot any trace of bias.
There is actual jurisprudence that may support the disclosure of the public sector algorithms, it would be a start. However, the private sector would still operate in the shadows. Is it too crazy to advocate for the disclosure of every algorithm? That is to say, a nationalization of sorts. The word may not be popular in the United States, but maybe Europe could make the first move…
I am aware of the challenges here – companies practically consider algorithms intellectual property. But this secrecy is costing people a great deal. I recently came across the story of this Airbnb user who got banned for life without even being given an explanation. Apparently, the company is not compelled to provide explanations for its actions. Like many others that we use everyday, this service is not under the United States government regulations.
God works in mysterious ways…and so does the algorithm. We need information to make conscious desicions, but we also need protection against arbitrary corporate actions. There is no doubt: algorithms work should be disclosed, and considered public information.