Skip to 0 minutes and 1 secondSo Algorithms sound like a technical thing but they have powerful implications for how we live. Algorithms are embedded in the infrastructures that we live in, and they’re the decision-making bits of code. So as data is gathered about us, it’s the algorithms that then decide what is done with those data, or how those data are used, or the way those data fold back into our lives in lots of different ways. so through from financial trading,

Skip to 0 minutes and 30 secondswhere algorithmic systems decide what trades to make: what to buy and what to sell; through to the kind of systems

Skip to 0 minutes and 36 secondsthat we use in our everyday lives: what music should I listen to on Spotify? What TV show or film should I watch? These are the sorts of things that are decided by algorithmic systems. They make recommendations to us. They recommend the things we should consume. They make decisions about what’s visible. So the two most powerful algorithms in our lives are probably the page-rank algorithm on Google that decides the order of the results for a search term you might search for -- so therefore that algorithm decides the things that you encounter; the things you’re exposed to; what you know of the world.

Skip to 1 minute and 12 secondsSo the question to ask yourself is “what do I know of the world that wasn’t presented to me by through the page-rank algorithm on Google or a similar search engine. And similarly you might think about what sort of things do I read or watch? What games do I play? Who do I know on Social Media? And how many of those things are a product of the decision making of algorithms that decide and make suggestions to you and recommendations to you all the time in these various different ways. The second most powerful algorithm is probably the edge-rank algorithm on Facebook and that decides what news you see -- what things you encounter in that social media environment.

Skip to 1 minute and 53 secondsSo if you put those things together you start to see that our lives and what we know of the world are a product of algorithmic systems. Similarly if you go to something like borders -- border decision-making processes -- people can be red-flagged based upon the decisions algorithms are making with their data whether or not they’re a dangerous individual. So these algorithmic systems are embedded deeply in how we live.

Skip to 2 minutes and 19 secondsNow that’s important because the way that we used to understand the social world was that it was the product of decisions made by human beings but now we’ve got a social world where the decisions are not just made by humans but by machines, And those then have profound outcomes for how we’re treated - what we know of the world and what happens to us in the world we’re a part of.

Skip to 2 minutes and 41 secondsSo algorithms and algorithmic decision making is probably the biggest question we face in understanding the social world today… ranging from things like the insurance premiums we get, the mortgage we get, through to our social media networks and the culture we consume, and onto the economic and financial trading systems around us. All of those things are now a product not just of humans making decisions but also what I’ve called the social power of algorithms.

Algorithms: the villains and heroes of the 'post-truth' era

Algorithms and algorithmic systems are all around us. In this video, Dr David Beer talks us through why they’re important, and why we need to be aware of their influence on our lives.

If we hear the word “algorithms”, there’s a chance we might be put off. It sounds like quite a technical thing: the preserve of computer scientists and mathematicians. Algorithms are decision-making bits of code, and because we live in an environment that’s dominated by code and software – that indeed requires software to function to a large extent – algorithms are a really important presence in our lives. They make decisions about us, and for us, all the time.

Their influence is at its starkest in the online world. For instance, I just did a Google search for “cat” and it claimed there were 2,760,000,000 results. But there’s only 10 of those 2,760,000,000 results on the first page, and if I click beyond the first page (a rarity for most of us), the search I did today only gave me 41 pages of results. That’s 410 results out of 2,760,000,000 which rounds to about 0%! So it’s important that Google does a good job of surfacing the content I want to see.

But how does Google work that out? It uses an algorithm. Part of that algorithm is based on appearances of the word “cat”, but there’s also a lot of assumptions being made by Google about what sort of pages I might want to see. It knows where I live, and what things I’ve looked at in the past and will use this information to tailor the results it retrieves. Similar things go on in social media, and this has a demonstrable effect on the news we encounter – we can find ourselves in an echo-chamber of our own prejudices, unexposed to contrary interpretations.

Add to this the fact that the algorithms can be ‘gamed’ to particular ends, be it manipulating your search results or the politics you’re exposed to, and you get an idea of the influence algorithms can have on our society more broadly.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Digital Wellbeing

University of York