TUMBY BAY - There is at least one commentator on PNG Attitude who thinks I’m a conspiracy theorist so I thought I’d throw this idea into the mix to see what sort of reaction I get.
The idea became apparent while I was reading Michiko Kakutani’s excellent little book, ‘The Death of Truth’ (William Collins, 2018).
And it’s all down to an otherwise innocent little tool called an algorithm.
An algorithm, as you are probably aware, is a kind of recipe or ordered set of steps that if followed will result in an answer to a problem.
Computer programmers design algorithms for all sorts of reasons, including selling us stuff or influencing the way we think.
You are probably familiar with the advertisements that pop up on your computer or digital device screen while searching the web.
Believe it or not an algorithm has been at work processing your previous searches and is presenting you with options most likely to appeal to you.
Search engines like Google and sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all use algorithms to provide information attractive to you. They do this based on earlier data they’ve collected about you. Many sites trade this information for monetary gain.
When you Google something the information you receive might be completely different to the information someone else receives who has used the exact same words in their query.
If you believe in climate change, for instance, the information you receive will be quite different to that which a climate change denier receives.
Most of us believe that search engines are neutral affairs and therefore unbiased.
That’s unfortunately not true. Your computer or device is pandering to your personal biases and tastes. It is actually isolating you into an increasingly narrow frame of content. Kakutani calls these “content silos”.
This might be unsettling but it becomes particularly unsettling when you look at the people behind the algorithms, not so much the programmers but the designers.
If algorithms are going to decide what information we are exposed to we need to be very careful about the intent and motives of the people controlling them.
Politicians have always played loose with truth and reality but the internet has given them a whole new means of making mischief.
In a very few short years they have managed to replace truth with opinion and the objective with the subjective. Truth has become ‘fake news’ and opinions have become ‘alternative facts’.
When the internet first appeared we welcomed it as the dawn of a new age connecting people everywhere and leading to creative solutions for many of our problems. If anything was going to democratise the world it would be the internet.
Algorithms have been with us for thousands of years and have been very useful. Modern technology has seen an incredible proliferation in their invention and use.
Little did we realise there would be a dark side.
As Kakutani says:
“The same web that’s democratised information, forced (some) governments to be more transparent, and enabled everyone from political dissidents to scientists and doctors to connect with one another – that same web, people are learning, can be exploited by bad actors to spread misinformation and disinformation, cruelty and prejudice”.
Conspiracy theories now flourish on social media. So do simplistic and inflammatory political messages like those used by people like Donald Trump and the Brexit advocates in Britain.
Politicians and others can now use algorithms on social media that can psychologically profile millions of potential voters. They have become the ultimate tool of Big Brother.
George Orwell may very well be chuckling in his grave. Or perhaps he is weeping.