Morris: Algorithm Hell
by Leo Morris
My reading habits have taken a strange turn lately, but it’s not really my fault. My Kindle has been bossing me around.
It started when I discovered and downloaded a mystery novel about a small- college librarian named Charlie who solves murders when not walking his Maine Coon cat around town on a leash. Then there was a whole series of books about Charlie and his cat.
The Kindle algorithm, armed with the knowledge that I might both enjoy mysteries and like cats, then recommended a different series in the same vein. And, since I kept downloading them, another and another.
You’d be amazed – or perhaps not – at how many novels there are featuring felineophile (OK, I made that word up) amateur sleuths.
There’s the woman with a cat named Elvis that hates the Rolling Stones and is addicted to watching “Jeopardy!” on television. And the one who owns two “magical cats,” one of which can walk through walls and the other with the ability to become invisible at will. The series I’m reading now, I swear on a stack of analog Bibles, is about a bookstore owner who sees ghosts and is unaware of being helped by a colony of special cats whose mission on Earth is not only to solve murders but also to gently guide humankind toward good and away from evil.
I might have made a slight mistake in judgment in confessing this minor idiosyncrasy to a few loved ones, who seem to find it a source of much amusement. “We’ve always known you were eccentric,” my sister said. “We didn’t need Kindle to tell us that.”
But I console myself with the realization that I have stumbled onto a dark secret of which my friends are blithely ignorant: Kindle is not the only technological wonder that bullies me, and a lot of other people.
Amazon knows everything we have ever ordered and “suggests” similar things we might “consider” buying. Google orders our search results based on our search history. Lord only knows what information those lovable “Echoes” in our living rooms are collecting. And there are more intelligent devices all the time. Smart watches and smart TVs and smart cars, and even smart refrigerators and vacuum cleaners.
And every hour of every day, they are collecting knowledge about our habits and patterns, billions and billions of bits of information stored in the cloud and available to any person or group powerful or clever enough to make use of it.
In this digital age, writes security technologist Bruce Schneier for wired.com, vendors like Google, Amazon and Apple are becoming our feudal lords, and “we are becoming their vassals” who pledge allegiance to them. We look to them for the convenience of downloading, the ease of constant backups, the ability of universal sharing, for automatic synchronizing and record-keeping. And in turn we trust them to keep our information secure.
Trust is our only option, he warns, because we have “no control over the security provided by our feudal lords.” Our lords “own us” and “ultimately they will always act in their own self-interest, as companies do when they mine our data in order to sell more advertising and make more money. These companies own us, so they can sell us off — again, like serfs — to rival lords . . . or turn us into authorities.”
It can be comforting to think this information will be used only for benign purposes such as understanding our preferences and making us better consumers. But that data will be there, and growing, too valuable a resource to ignore. It will be mined for much more than our shopping habits.
Eric Rosenbach and Katherine Mansted, in an article for the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, worry about the way sophisticated technologies of the information age are being weaponized against democracies by authoritarian regimes, threatening “to jeopardize democracies’ ability to govern and protect their national security, and to undermine people’s trust in democracy as a system of government.” Governments such as those of Russia and China are finding ways of using the Internet to control their domestic information environments even as they labor to add to the doubt we citizens of free countries have in the reliability of information we receive.
Historian Noah Yuval has even graver concerns. Until now, he says, liberal democracies have won and totalitarian systems like communism and fascism have lost because it was too inefficient to centralize collecting and processing data for making decisions. Democracies have distributed data systems, with the knowledge held by the many individuals and organizations that need it to make decisions.
“The greatest danger that now faces liberal democracy,” he writes, “is that the revolution in information technology will make dictatorships more efficient than democracies, and then the main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the 20th century – their attempt to concentrate all the information in one place – will become their greatest advantage.”
I have been among those members of older generations fretting that millennials and the even younger members of iGen have lost all sense of privacy. They share lurid photos of themselves, shout the most extreme nonsense on social media and generally behave as if nothing they put online will last beyond the moment.
Perhaps the rest of us also ought to give a little thought to what use will be made of all the personal data we are increasingly willing to give up.
These dystopian visions might well be too alarmist, as so many in our history have been. But they’re something to mull over the next time we’re “guaranteed anonymity” if only we’ll fill out another online survey.
But I must now return to my latest mystery. The protagonist is zeroing in on the wrong suspect, and the cats are worried.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.