‘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.