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Discourse That Isn't: Algorithms



While I have claimed that Anonymity is a major facet of our inability to hold effective conversation in the 21st century, it is certainly not the only. Another great cause of this failing is Algorithms.


Algorithms manage to be arguably the leading cause of 21st century in-grouping, while simultaneously being very much misunderstood by the average person. We all talk about the “algorithm” as a mystical entity coming to divide us, yet don’t realize that it already has and is only getting stronger.


All anthropomorphizing aside, “algorithm” is simply an umbrella term for computational processes or steps to be computed. This can be something as simple as a program that solves any math equation you give it (calculators have been doing this for years), or it could be something as intricate as a Deep Learning Neural Network (a type of “AI”). We all have a shared understanding that our calculator isn’t controlling our lives, but rather that the problem we perceive lies specifically within the domain of Artificial Intelligence.


These AI’s often operate in a way that takes as much of our data (and metadata) as possible, finds patterns in the data, then uses this information to perform operations to benefit the individual or company that uses them. On the surface this doesn’t seem like a problem as these types of algorithms can give consumers the most accurate advertisements on websites for products they didn’t even know they wanted, for example. However, the issue with this mechanism is its ability to be used not simply for recommending products, but rather for its ability to determine who (and what) you associate with. Not only does recommending purely like-minded content reinforce one’s views, it also increasingly isolates you within those strengthening views which leads to a decrease in exposure to new ideas. This, in turn, leads to an increasingly narrow understanding of the world.


From Tik-Tok only showing media that keeps you entranced in its dopamine haven, to YouTube promoting increasingly extreme views in one's feed, it is difficult to remove oneself from the isolationist world that has been curated for us. While seemingly everyone happily admits this is problematic, there is a roadblock standing in our way: we all secretly love it.


Few people will admit it, but we love the dopamine hits that online spaces manufacture for us. We love having the next entrée to our materialist diet within our periphery when surfing the web. We love that the next recommended video online is something we will enjoy yet wouldn’t have known to search for it ourselves… We love our individual spheres on the internet, regardless of the implicit lack of privacy we accept.


There is nothing greater than surrounding ourselves with people who agree with us - echo chambers that will reinforce our views. While this is not unique to online social spaces, as humans have historically sought communities of like-minded individuals (sports teams, religious organizations, etc…) the difference is that the modern technological in-groups are often reinforced by the above-mentioned algorithms, trapping us within their domain. It takes relatively little inertia to expose someone to new ideas in the physical world, yet in the online world one can be completely isolated from those they disagree with.


This submersion below an ocean of mirrors is the new starting place for dialogue (if you can even call it that). We no longer start from a place of uncertain opinions, but rather from a place of absolute conviction of our views reinforced by everything we interact with online. Democracy dies where discourse ceases to exist, and discourse is simply an illusion in a world where nothing you think you know is ever challenged.



 


We have been gaining in political polarization since before the dawn of our online world, so there are other factors at play, but I find modern algorithms to be one of the leading factors of its recent acceleration.

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