Ever wonder how algorithms threaten our identities?
Tune into AttentionGate, the new series from the folks that brought you Identity Theft
In the Arrival, the first episode in 1967 of the British TV show The Prisoner, Number 6 says:
“I will not make any deals with you. I've resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.”
If an algorithm is an operation that turns a certain input into an equally certain output, then it can be seen as expressing a unique and consistent identity. The extent to which this algorithm, in trying to faithfully represent a pre-existing identity, in the process reduces that identity to something less than itself, then the algorithm no longer represents identity. Instead, the algorithm disturbs, distorts and destroys the identity. It becomes a new, different identity- maybe still disguised as the underlying, organic, authentic, original human identity but actually nothing more than a bionic simulation.
When the input for an algorithm is the attention of the user, the success of the algorithm is based on its ability to record attention data at its original resolution, preserved in its original context. For example, it’s not only the specific area of the page I was paying attention to, but who influenced me to go there in the first place. The failure of attention algorithms to maintain this fidelity began with “My Tivo Thinks I am Gay”
In trying to correct the machine from thinking he was gay, Mr. Iwanyk “tried to tame TiVo’s gay fixation by recording war movies and other “guy stuff.” His attempt to recalibrate the attention algorithm is too strong, and its starts to generate “documentaries on Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Eichmann” as output.
The specter of the Holocaust casts its shadow once again. Data costs merge into datacaust. Before we had identity theft in the information world, we had identity theft in the physical world. This was not about stealing a virtual identity, but about stealing physical bodies. Removing human expression (hairstyle, clothing, jewelry, social circle) and reducing the individual to a single number was the best way to eliminate human identity without eliminating human productivity.
As the number of prisoners brought to the expanding Auschwitz complex rose, so did the death rate. But if a corpse were separated from its uniform, identification was rendered all but impossible. With often hundreds of prisoners dying per day, other methods of identification were needed... In May 1944, numbers in the "A" series and the "B" series were first issued to Jewish prisoners, beginning with the men on May 13th and the women on May 16th. The "A" series was to be completed with 20,000; however an error led to the women being numbered to 25,378 before the "B" series was begun. The intention was to work through the entire alphabet with 20,000 numbers being issued in each letter series. In each series, men and women had their own separate numerical series, ostensibly beginning with number 1... from The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies
Today, the seductiveness of Tivo has been eclipsed by the sensitive ears of search boxes. Every interest is heard, every desire is remembered, every curiosity recorded on somebody else’s server. In exchange for capturing all of this information, the search algorithm promises to return relevant links that deliver a profitable return on attention.
When we wonder about the black box, and ask to see the wizard inside of an attention algorithm, invariably that black box opens up to reveal another one: at the same moment link-based algorithms are losing the battle against splogs and fraudulent clicks, personalized search emerges and seduces us effortlessly into a new attention algorithm; at least until people start wondering about the value of consuming their own personal attention residues and log out out from the platform.
Stay tuned for upcoming AttentionGate episodes on AOL search data and pretext surveillance at HP ...