Those who don’t understand algorithms…

Don’t be scared if you don’t know what an algorithm is. This article is for you, so please read on.

If you know what an algorithm is but mainly from a mathematical viewpoint, you may skip the following paragraph, but please read on below, too.

About algorithms… and human action

Picture ‘Lamp Flowchart’ by Wapcaplet, via Wikimedia Commons

In a nutshell, an algorithms is the standardized function by which an action is executed – the important word being “standardized“. Because: the action to be executed is defined very clearly, and the function must state unambiguously in what circumstances and under what conditions this action has to be executed (or not).

This may sound very theoretical, but we all have already been confronted with a multitude of algorithmic processes.

Retrieving money from a cash machine is a typical, rather simple example: the machine has a certain number of predefined “actions” it can do (ask for your PIN code, hand out a certain amount of money, show account balance, swallow your card etc.) and its actions depend on your input, which are “conditions” for the machine.

Of course every action that is computer-based is algorithmic, i.e. implemented within different “layers” of programming, all boiled down to the basic electronic signals 0 and 1.

But no need for computers: actually, every procedure guided by a flowchart is algorithmic, too. Everything that is standardized. Everything that is automated.

“Algorithm” means no room for interpretation. And no choice.

Human action, on the other hand, is not algorithmic: there is not one condition or circumstance that would trigger a clearly defined human action. Nor is there one single action that is unambiguously rooted in a certain circumstance. It is all about social context and interpretation, coloured by individuality. It is all about interaction. And choice.

Algorithms vs. human action – what seems like a facile dichotomy is, in reality, a crucial distinction to make.

Algorithms govern our lives

Algorithms are not only omnipresent in our lives, they have also gained remarkable power over our lives. Some in a very direct manner, others almost unnoticeably.

I leave the examples to two people who have already explained it way better than I ever could. And if you have read until here, I urge you to invest the extra minutes it takes to watch the talks. Because, as C.P.Snow said in 1961 already, “those who don’t understand algorithms, can’t understand how the decisions are made.

Kevin Slavin’s insightful and highly entertaining talk at Lift 11 about algorithms in trading, vacuum cleaning and movie recommendations (basically everything):

Edi Pariser’s almost scary TED talk about the way algorithms control our access to (online) information:

Quite sobering, no?

There is hope

By now, you might find it easier to understand why I keep insisting on much-needed digital education. And although the actual distinction between algorithms and human actions may seem easy – the hardest part is to realize that there is a distinction to be made.

True awareness of what differentiates algorithms from us, humans, can make us proud of what solely we have: intuition, values/ethics, consciousness for the big picture, the aspiration for excellence.

But this, too, has been expressed much better by someone else before: