‘Algorithms can engineer friendships, our dating life, medical diagnosis, even what bra size women wear!’

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William Uricchio speaks on Day 3, THiNK 2013. Photo: Arun Sehrawat
William Uricchio speaks on Day 3, THiNK 2013. Photo: Arun Sehrawat

The first session on Day 3 of THiNK2013 had renowned media historian William Uricchio speaking about the changing nature of media and the use of algorithms in a session titled ‘The End of Choice: How Algorithms Determine the Shape of Your Life”.

Uricchio began his presentation by stating that the first 10 years of cinema were crucial as the medium could have evolved in several different ways. But eventually, it just developed into the three ways we are now familiar with: telling stories theatrically, documentary form and animation. Today more than ever, human beings and technology intersect in more complex ways and algorithms provide the space between the two. Algorithms, he said, are simply formulae, a set of ingredients used in computational databases. What makes algorithms unique is the fact that they have the purity of mathematics but the subjectivity of language.

According to Uricchio algorithms can lead to empowerment with the availability of information at our doorstep. However, the tipping point to this argument is that the control of these algorithms are concentrated in the hands of a few private companies. Taking it a bit further, he said that, “Algorithms can engineer our friendships, our dating life, our medical diagnosis, even what bra size women wear!’ This all pervasive nature of algorithms is quite unsettling especially when it comes to questions of privacy, censorship, authorship, attribution, point of view and stability of text.

“It shapes the world we see, the films and music they recommended to us, the data that google displays for us, is based on the data they already have of us,” he added.

Uricchio cautioned though, that we need to be wary of the algorithmic era, and not lose the skills honed over many years. “We are moving into a new era, an era of the algorithmic, We are looking at wikipedia as an encyclopedia.”
He suggested that what we need to do is build tools to make the internet and the algorithms for that matter, more transparent. Learning has become unreliable and the need of hour is to teach students the importance of point of view, authorship and  stability,  and not just accept the current scenario of the algorithmic age as a ‘black box’ of all knowledge.

By Donna Mathew

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