I think there is a real danger in the algorithmification of our world. Yes, the introduction of intelligence into our tools is, for the most part, a good thing. However in some cases, I feel that letting the machines do the work for us is counter-productive to progress.
Take for example the destruction of one of my long time favorite tools, Google Reader. I know that there are alternatives, and for the record I’ve moved to Feedly, but let’s not get distracted here, stay with me.
Today’s death of Google Reader and the emergence of new applications that surface news stories through the use of predictive algorithms saddens and disturbs me… here’s why.
To remove choice is to yield control
There is a difference between a recommendation that one can elect to investigate, and one in which they are forced to decide upon by having it inserted into the field of view. This is fundamentally the problem with Edgerank; an algorithm is determining for me, what is truly important, furthermore it is the default view. Some might suggest that I can alter the function of that algorithm by annotating which sources of information have greater importance, but I would respond, how is this any better (or easier) than just choosing what is important in the first place and being delivered the full stream of information?
For years, I scoured the web for the brightest minds, I hand selected the most interesting perspectives and chose how I wanted to categorize my sources of information. I was in control. To make it into my “Hotlist” was to EARN my attention. If a source chose to go the path of the new Mashable, it would lose my attention.
Each and every post was delivered to my own personally curated dashboard of ideas. While I can still do this, I fear that many people will give in and let Flipboard, Zite and the forthcoming Facebook reader do all of that hard work for them, or worse yet, believe that this is a good thing for them. Invariably, those people will miss out and become docile, willingly accepting that algorithm-determined news of the day.
Will they enjoy their news? Of course! Who wouldn’t? It is giving you exactly what you want…but perhaps not what you need.
I don’t think it advances our society or the function of the human mind to serve us exactly what we want, without the need to do any work. Furthermore, as more of these apps incorporate algorithms, the more we hand over control…and I, for one, am not comfortable with that.
Consider for a moment the act of doing research.
To do research, one must think about the problem that needs to be solved, and actively seek out the answer. It is the process of seeking this answer that exposes us to a wide variety of information including viewpoints which we do not agree with and in some cases causes us look into information that was not originally considered. It challenges the brain to make new connections. To introduce an algorithm into that process, moreover one that brings the information directly to you, would be to rob you of the experience of discovery.
Now I’m not saying all algorithms are bad, and I’m not saying that these algorithms won’t deliver highly relevant news stories than directly match my interests. What I’m saying is, when we remove the fully manual option as the default (or even as an option), we create the possibility for mind-numbingly vanilla, lazy experiences that rob us of the benefits that actively seeking information provides. And worst of all, it is a slippery slope when you give over control of what you consume.
RIP Google Reader – July 1, 2013