An Algorithmic Dystopia

‘Algorithms’ have suddenly come to be the magic solution to all problems. I think I’ve been a little behind the curve in realising this. Wikipedia defines the algorithm as

a finite sequence of well-defined, computer-implementable instructions, typically to solve a class of problems or to perform a computation. Algorithms are always unambiguous, and are used as specifications for performing calculations, data processing, automated reasoning, and other tasks.

By feeding key words, key statistics and key facts into a computer programme they can – for example – tell Amazon what topics I am likely to be interested in, and so what books I might want to order from them next time around; advise political parties which way I lean opinion-wise – perhaps from my Amazon orders; and tell examining boards what grades I ‘would’ have got if I had been able sit my A-levels this year.

The firms and organisations that compile and crunch these algorithms, therefore, are likely to be immensely powerful. It’s possible that they delivered the EU referendum to the Brexiteers in 2016, the General Election to the Tories in 2019 (they certainly helped), and all those socially-discriminating A-level scores to poor sixth-formers this month. The method is known to have its dark side. The disgraced Cambridge Analytica worked with algorithms. Dominic Cummings appears to be deep into them – they’re what give him his reputation for almost superhuman political judgment, and his value, therefore, to our simple-minded but willing-to-be-led prime minister.

It’s possible that the current row over A-levels – with socio-economic ‘facts’ having been used to down-grade students in ‘lower’ areas of the country while maintaining high grades for Public (in the British sense) schools – will undermine confidence in the whole method. At least one Oxford college has stated that it will honour its offers to applicants made on grounds of their previous school work and teachers’ references, even if their analyticised grades seem to make them less worthy. Good for Worcester College! Expect there to be more disillusionment with the system when GCSE results come out.

As a devotee of utopian and dystopian science fiction, it seems to me that a society run by algorithms fits squarely into the latter category. In its search for objectivity and certainty among complexity and confusion, it takes little account of human judgment. Society is a machine; either robotically controlled, or controlled (in the case of politics) by a group of clever people manipulating it for their own ends. In either case its implications must be profoundly undemocratic; even if those of us on the Left could learn how to pull its levers and press its buttons too. The best we can do is warn.

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3 Responses to An Algorithmic Dystopia

  1. Robert Loughrey says:

    I oppose all testing and marking except where it is directly to help the student learn.

    The first purpose of exams and marking is to provide an easy way for employers and universities to sift through applications. I accept that some students need the competitive energy that comes from striving to out-do their friends, but if that were any significant part of the purpose of testing its consequences would not be amplified so grotesquely as it is, where three hours in a young person’s life can make or ruin all the rest of it. Johnson himself gave the game away – in his first speech defending the English recalibration, he said the algorithm was something employers could depend upon. For him then – someone who the exam system has hugely benefited -, the danger is grade inflation; if employers can’t trust year-on-year consistency, they might actually have to put some work into recruiting. But if you stop worrying about grade inflation, then suddenly this whole issue of recalibration vanishes. Employers and universities will have to learn to actually read application forms, and learn to hire the right person instead of the highest qualified (who’ll leave after six months anyway for something better – and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen that). Meanwhile children will have a burden lifted from them, and will perhaps use the resulting free time to think creatively about their subject; and teachers, perhaps, will be allowed to teach once again off-syllabus but interesting side-topics.

    The testing system is barbaric, unfair, alienating, and a public subsidy for capital. Get rid of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I entirely agree with you; and indeed your comment reminded me of an earlier stage of my academic life – the radical early 1970s – when, as a new young lecturer, frustrated by the way all my teaching, and my students’ learning (and my learning along with them!), were dominated by the requirements of the exam system at the end of the year – and at the end of just a couple of months when our courses became ‘modularised’ – I reacted against the whole process of ‘assessment’, except in the students’ own developmental interests, tout court. I wrote a piece about this in a contemporary HE journal which I can’t find now; but of course I never expected it to be taken up. (I was told that Government subventions to universities depended on students’ grades.) I maintained then that assessment was fundamentally anti-education as I understood the ‘e’ word. It took out valuable teaching and learning time, addressed students’ aims to the wrong targets – results rather than knowledge and understanding; encouraged ‘rote’ learning; put an awful burden on their teachers (that awful ‘marking’ process); and probably – except in the cases of Medicine, and perhaps Law – didn’t tell their prospective employers what they needed to know about the young people who were comig to them for jobs. Employers, I argued, as you do, ought to be made to set their own job-specific exams and tests, if they wanted to, to examine candidates’ suitability for the kinds of work they were offering. Beyond this, simple unidimensional ‘grades’ – A, B, C; First, 2:1, 2:2; Third – couldn’t tell one anything about the more complex qualities of candidates’ minds and achievements. As ‘Admissions Secretary’ for my Department – in the days when there were far fewer applicants – I always paid at least as much attention to teachers’ assessments on their ‘UCCA’ forms, and on the box they used to describe their ‘interests’, as I did to their A-level grades. I felt vindicated when a number I admitted with poor A-levels, but other things going for them, turned out to be exemplary students.

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      • Robert says:

        Ooo, medicine and law – yes, they have a point there: probably none of us want unqualified doctors, architects, engineers and judges. But does that extend into other fields like private fitness instructors, language teachers, plumbers – anyone who deals direct with the public? You wouldn’t really want any old joe to just set up as a karate instructor, and the public can’t be expected to design and set an exam every time they want an electrician. I suppose professional organisations would have to be beefed up for the purpose. It could be done.

        Prof, you also mention that course funding is often tied to testing. That really is putting the cart before the horse! So, the state pays schools etc to do employers’ work for them and sift out the putatively bright kids, and the more bright kids the schools find, the more they get paid, but if they find too many they get recalibrated to prevent grade inflation and probably end up getting the same anyway. Meanwhile the top politicians and bureaucrats – who naturally have benefitted from this lunacy – are the ones who decide it must continue, which they do on the grounds presumably that it produced them, so it must work.

        As a system, it has a repulsive beauty.

        Oh, btw – hello, professor Porter. I’ve been reading and sadly nodding along to your blog for a few years – since it changed its name a while ago – but these are my first comments. Thank you for those years of wit and insight.

        Liked by 1 person

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