Why is everyone talking about algorithms?

Why is everyone talking about algorithms?

David Beer

Just before midnight on the 6th of October 2016 the pound suddenly dropped by 6% before recovering most of that lost value during the early hours of the morning. Theories circulated about how this might have happened. Was it a product of a typo in a trade or a similar mishap, or was it the result of some unknown activity amongst the many algorithms that are involved in such trading? Algorithms became the most likely culprit. Something similar happened with the previous ‘flash crash’ of 2010. Since the reports of the apparent manipulation of Facebook’s news feed algorithms a couple of years ago, news stories about algorithms have become frequent. Algorithms seem to be taking on an increasing public profile. The concern is often with what these algorithms or even Westworld style ‘rogue algorithms’ might be doing to us. No longer are these decision making bits of code seen as being of interest solely to software developers, hackers or computer enthusiasts. Instead, an interest in algorithms is now becoming something of a mainstream pastime. As a result of our intrigue with their powers, algorithms are becoming something of an icon of our data-dense and software enacted lives.

Despite isolating algorithms as a potential source of this sudden crash in the pound, the accounts remain inconclusive. No one is quite sure exactly what happened. Which is revealing in itself. It shows that these systems have become so complex that they are almost incomprehensible. They are a bundle of lots of systems serving lots of interests as they activate trades, measure sentiment and pre-empt market fluctuations. Back in 2002 Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin outlined the processes that they described as ‘splintering urbanism’. Their book was concerned with understanding the vast systems that overlap and make-up urban spaces. The many overlapping service providers, utilities and commercial infrastructures of the city, they argue, mean that they have splintered and become almost impossible to know or fully understand. It would seem that the algorithmic systems linked to this ‘flash crash’ are following these broader splintering processes. The splintered complexity of the different algorithms, codes and systems means that collectively they are unknowable. We might be able to understand one part, but the whole will always be elusive.

The fact that happen without it being possible to put together a full explanation of this flash crash of the 6th of October 2016 suggests that a similar splintering process is happening within the mediated social world more broadly – there are just too many things going on that might feed into such an event and too many splintered systems. On top of this, we can then add Frank Pasquale’s popular notion of the Black Box Society, in which we are largely unaware of the algorithmic led processes that act upon us. The algorithm then, or algorithms operating in various combinations, reside within our collective technological unconscious’, as Nigel Thrift once described it. The fascination with algorithms might be a consequence then of their apparently powerful effects, like being able to radically devalue currency without any warning, whilst they remain largely unknowable and elusive. They have splintered into combinations of which the outcomes are unpredictable and impossible to unpick.

In terms of our growing interest and the rising volume of news stories, algorithms are likely to be appealing because of the very fact that they appear both enigmatic and mysterious whilst seeming powerful and assertive. Algorithms provoke much commentary, they are said to ‘rule our working lives’, to ‘rule the world’ to perpetuate prejudice, and to potentially manipulate us or make us slaves. It’s not just what is being said about algorithms, but just how prominent they are becoming in media coverage. As I write this piece there are reports of a speech by Angela Merkel on the implications of algorithms for shaping people’s encounters with news and information. There is a steady flow of news and comment about algorithms. Mysteries are always of interest, especially when they are mysteries that directly shape our lives.

On the one hand then, algorithms are active in making recommendations to us about what to read, what to watch, what to listen to, who to hire, what risks to take, how we might exercise, who we might connect with on social media, and so on. They are active in border, risk and security decisions, or in insurance and financial service decisions. They filter news feeds, prioritise searches define what is encountered and when. The list goes on. This is only the tip of a very big iceberg, especially as algorithms are deployed to take advantage of the unfathomable quantity of data produced about people. So, one reason why algorithms are now being spoken about so frequently is that they are so active in our lives. The influence or social power of algorithms has become hard to ignore.

The notion of the algorithm though, is also becoming really quite powerful in its own right. The very notion of the algorithm has taken on a life of its own, especially in the popular media. Algorithms are becoming the shadowy figures that in some way embody our wider fears and concerns. The visions we have of algorithms chime with broader feelings of a loss of control, of accelerated lives that are speeding away from us, of our inability to cope with the unmanageable information that we are exposed to, or the feeling that our lives are governed for us and that we have less discretion, autonomy or voice.

The talk about algorithms is a product of the powerful role of algorithms in our lives, but the talk around algorithms also seems to tap into broader concerns about powerlessness and the limitations placed on our discretion and choice. The algorithm is coming to embody the sense of life as out of our control. Algorithms are evoked to speak to these fears and concerns. This is not to say that they don’t have material influences on our lives, they clearly have powerful consequences. But the idea of the algorithm is also now a powerful presence, jumping out suddenly from the mass of code within which everyday life is lived to give us the occasional fright or to remind us of our sense of limited autonomy.

These enigmas of the splintering data rich society are likely to grow in their profile and notoriety in the coming years. Especially as our fears of the unknowability of the forces acting upon us continue to unfold in ways that we can’t full comprehend. The ‘flash crash’ is one moment in which the algorithm emerges from the shadows, but these moments are becoming more frequent. The figure of the algorithm is likely to be something we will encounter more frequently as their mysteries unfold, as our interest is piqued and as we continue to experience algorithmic processes impinging on our lives.


David Beer is Reader in Sociology at the University of York. His new book is Metric Power. His previous book Popular Culture and New Media: The Politics of Circulation was recently published in paperback. He is on Twitter @davidgbeer