Reddit, Mathematically the Anti-Facebook (+ other thoughts on algorithmic culture)

(or, Are We Social Insects?)

I worried that my last blog post was too short and intellectually ineffectual. But given the positive feedback I’ve received, my true calling may be to write top ten lists of other people’s ideas, based on conferences I attend. So here is another list like that.

These are my notes from my attendance at “Algorithmic Culture,” an event in the University of Michigan’s Digital Currents program. It featured a lecture by the amazing Ted Striphas. These notes also reflect discussion after the talk that included Megan Sapnar Ankerson, Mark Ackerman, John Cheney-Lippold and other people I didn’t write down.

Ted has made his work on historicizing the emergence of an “algorithmic culture” (Alex Galloway‘s term) available widely already, so my role here is really just to point at it and say: “Look!” (Then applaud.)

If you’re not familiar with this general topic area (“algorithmic culture”) see Tarleton Gillespie’s recent introduction The Relevance of Algorithms and then maybe my own writing posse’s Re-Centering the Algorithm. OK here we go:

Eight Questions About Algorithms and Culture

  1. Are algorithms centralizing? Algorithms, born from ideas of decentralized control and cybernetics, were once seen as basically anti-hierarchical. Fifty years ago we searched for algorithms in nature and found them decentralized — today engineers write them and we find them centralizing.
  2. OR, are algorithms fundamentally democratic? Even if Google and Facebook have centralized the logic, they claim “democracy!” because we provide the data. YouTube has no need of kings. The LOLcats and fail videos are there by our collective will.
  3. Many of today’s ideas about algorithms and culture can be traced to earlier ideas about social insects. Entomology once noted that termites “failed to evolve” because their algorithms, based on biology, were too inflexible. How do our algorithms work? Too inflexible? (and does this mean we are social insects?)
  4. The specific word “algorithm” is a recent phenomenon, but the idea behind it is not new. (Consider: plan, recipe, procedure, script, program, function, …) But do we think about these ideas differently now? If so, maybe it is who looks at them and where they look. In early algorithmic thinking people were the logic and housed the procedure. Now computers house the procedure and people are the operands.
  5. Can “algorithmic culture” be countercultural? Fred Turner and John Markoff have traced the links between the counterculture and computing. Striphas argued that counterculture-like influences on what would become modern computing came much earlier than the 60s: consider the influence of WWII and The Holocaust. For example, Talcott Parsons saw culture through the lens of anti-authoritarianism. He also saw culture as the opposite of state power. Is culture fundamentally anti-state? This also leads me to ask: Is everything always actually about Hitler in the end?
  6. Today, the computer science definition of “algorithm” is similar to anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s definition of culture in 1970s — that is, a recipe, plan, etc. Why is this? Is this significant?
  7. Is Reddit the conceptual anti-Facebook? Reddit publicly discloses the algorithm that it uses to sort itself. There have been calls for Facebook algorithm transparency on normative grounds. What are the consequences of Reddit’s disclosure, if any? As Reddit’s algorithm is not driven by Facebook’s business model, does that mean these two social media platform sorting algorithms are mathematically (or more properly, procedurally) opposed?
  8. Are algorithms fundamentally about homeostasis? (That’s the idea, prevalent in cybernetics and 1950s social science, that the systems being described are stable.) In other words, when algorithms are used today is there an implicit drive toward stability, equilibrium, or some other similar implied goal or similar standard of beauty for a system?

Whew, I’m done. What a great event!

I’m skeptical about that last point (algorithms = homeostasis) but the question reminds me of “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts,” part 2 of the 2011 BBC documentary/insane-music-video by Adam Curtis titled All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. It is a favorite of mine. Although I think many of the implied claims are not true, it’s worth watching for the soundtrack and jump cuts alone.

It’s all about cybernetics and homeostasis. I’ll conclude with it… “THIS IS A STORY ABOUT THE RISE OF THE MACHINES”:

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace 2 from SACPOP on Vimeo.

P.S.

Some of us also had an interesting side conversation about what job would be the “least algorithmic.” Presumably something that was not repeatable — it differs each time it is performed. Some form of performance art? This conversation led us to think that everything is actually algorithmic.

The Unintended Consequences of Obsessing Over Consequences (or why to support youth risk-taking)

Developmental psychologists love to remind us that the frontal lobe isn’t fully developed until humans are in their mid-20s. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for our ability to assess the consequences of our decisions, our ability to understand how what we do will play out into the future. This is often used to explain why teens (and, increasingly, college-aged people) lack the cognitive ability to be wise. Following from this logic, there’s a belief that we must protect the vulnerable young people from their actions because they don’t understand their consequences.

This logic assumes that understanding future consequences is *better* than not understanding them. I’m not sure that I believe this to be true.

Certainly, when we send young people off to fight our wars, we don’t want them to think about the consequences of what they have to do to survive (and, thus, help us survive). It’s not that we want them to shoot first and ask questions later, but we don’t want them to overthink their survival instincts when they’re being shot at.

Reproduction is an interesting counter-example. There’s no doubt that teens moms do little in the way of thinking about the consequence of getting pregnant. But folks in their 30s spend an obscene amount of time thinking about what it means to reproduce. Intensive parenting is clearly the product of constantly thinking about consequences, but I’m not sure that it’s actually healthier for kids or parents. I would hypothesize that biology wins when we don’t overthink parenting while the planet (as a delicate environmental ecosystem that can barely support the population) wins when we do overthink these things. Just a guess.

Creativity is another interesting area. We often talk about how older people are more rigid in their thinking. I love listening to mathematicians discuss whether or not someone who has not had a breakthrough insight in their 20s can have one in their 40s/50s. Certainly in the tech industry, we’re obsessed with youth. But our obsession in many ways is rooted in risk-taking, in not thinking too much about the future.

As I get older, I’m painfully aware of my brain getting more ‘conservative’ (not in a political sense). I am more strategic in my thinking, more judgmental of people who just try something radical. I spend a lot more time telling the little voice of fear and anxiety and neuroticism to STFU. I look back at my younger years and reflect on how stupid I was and then I laugh when I think about how well some of my more ridiculous ideas paid off. I find myself actually thinking about consequences before taking risks and then I get really annoyed at myself because I’ve always prided myself on my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants quality. In short, I can feel myself getting old and I think it’s really weird.

Most people judge from their current mental mindset, unable to remember a different mindset. Thus, I totally get why most people, if they’re undergoing the cognitive transition that I’ve watched myself do, would see young people’s risk-taking as inherently horrible. Sure, old folks respect the outcomes of some youth who change the world. But since most people don’t become Mark Zuckerberg, there’s more pressure to protect (and, often, confine) youth than to encourage their radical risk taking. And, of course, most risk-taking doesn’t result in a billion dollar valuation. Hell, most risk-taking has no chance of paying off. But it’s a weird, connected package. The same mindset that propelled me to do some seriously reckless, outright dangerous, and sometimes illegal things also prompted me to never say no to other institutional authorities in ways that allowed me to succeed professionally. This is why I don’t regret even the stupidist of things that I did as a youth. Of course, I’m also damn lucky that I never got caught.

I’m worried about our societal assumption that risk-taking without thinking of the consequences is an inherently bad thing. We need some radical thinking to solve many of the world’s biggest problems. And I don’t believe that it’s so easy to separate out what adults perceive as ‘good’ risk-taking from what they think is ‘bad’ risk-taking. But how many brilliant minds will we destroy by punishing their radical acts of defying authority? How many brilliant minds will we destroy by punishing them for ‘being stupid’? It’s easy to get caught up in a binary of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when all that you can think about is the consequences. But change has never happened when people simply play by the rules. You have to break the rules to create a better society. And I don’t think that it’s easy to do this when you’re always thinking about the consequences of your actions.

I’m not arguing for anarchy. I’m too old for that. But I am arguing that we should question our assumption that people are better off when they have the cognitive capacity to think through consequences. Or that society is better off when all individuals have that mental capability. From my perspective, there are definitely pros and cons to overthinking and while there are certainly cases where future-aware thought is helpful, there are also cases where it’s not. And I also think that there are some serious consequences of imprisoning youth until they grow up.

Anyhow, fun thoughts to munch on this weekend…