“Humans are distinguished from other species”, says Peter Thiel, one of Silicon Valley’s high priests, “by our ability to work miracles. We call these miracles technology.” Thiel inadvertently touches on a pervasive paradox: we see ourselves as both the miracle-makers of technology and the earthly audience, looking on in wonder. But if the miracle was once the automobile, the modern equivalent of the “great gothic cathedrals”, in Roland Barthes’s famous formulation, now it is surely the internet: conceived by unknown forces, built on the toil of a hidden workforce, and consumed more or less unthinkingly by whole populations. The internet’s supposed immateriality masks not only the huge infrastructure that sustains it, including vast, heavily polluting data centres, but also the increasingly narrow corporate interests that shape it and, in turn, us – the way we think, work and live. Algorithms are at the heart of this creative process, guiding us through internet searches and our city’s streets with a logic steeped in secrecy, filtered down from above – namely, the boardrooms of the Big Five: Amazon, Apple, Alphabet Inc. (the parent company of Google), Facebook and Microsoft, those companies that have come to dominate the digital realm.
Ed Finn’s What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the age of computing is an attempt to demystify these “quasi-magical” algorithms. The title could suggest a dating manual from the not too distant future – Spike Jonze’s film Her comes to mind – and to an extent the book is not far off. Finn writes to ground these elusive entities in their material existence, in the hope of making our coexistence happier and more creative. His ambitious attempt to draw together all the different algorithmic platforms into one cogent tale might occasionally falter – they are simply too varied for a book this slim – but the frenzied focus, from Google and Facebook to Airbnb, Uber and gaming, at least gives a fitting sense that, as Finn puts it, “algorithms are everywhere”. The word itself, he explains, derives from the ninth-century mathematician Muhammad ibn Mùsà al-Khwàrizmì (latinized as Algoritmi), a Persian who laid the foundations – and coined the term – for algebra. “Algorithm” gradually came to signify any mathematical process that navigated its way through data sets in a given way: “a sequence of tasks to achieve a particular calculation or result”, whether a square root or, today, a Google search. Indeed, computer engineering’s adoption of the term artfully placed programming in the cold, scientific current of mathematics, where complex problems have singular solutions, free from subjective bias. This imbued the algorithm, at least initially, with an aura of impartiality. “Algorithms are the computer processes and formulas that take your questions and turn them into answers”, Google explains. Based on our past online behaviour, they are also enlisted to suggest us potential partners, summer reads and news stories. In some cases, algorithms are entrusted with determining a criminal’s likelihood to reoffend, selecting employees to sack, navigating the stock market and even writing the news stories themselves. Add to this growing trust the secrecy that often surrounds their method of calculation (the preservation of “trade secrets” ostensibly trumping that of transparency, even in America’s criminal justice system), and algorithms become, as Finn argues, “mathematical oracles”.