I love algorithms. They help me find directions, discover new music, or find a date.
But are algorithms always a good thing?
I grew up in a boring-ass cul-de-sac in Nebraska—pre-Internet. So I love living in a world where there are countless options, and ways to find the perfect option that works for me.
But I can’t help but wonder, how do algorithms work to our detriment?
Algorithms choose what news stories we see, what music we listen to, and what people we become “friends” with.
We’re grateful to not live in a world where our only sources of information are three television channels and the local newspaper. But while algorithms help us follow our obscure interests, and connect with others with those same interests, algorithms are also sorting us into increasingly divided groups.
- We increasingly live in “rich” or “poor” neighborhoods.
- We increasingly live in areas that are “conservative” or “liberal.”
- The rich marry the rich, increasing inequality.
Living by algorithms also kills your ability to think for yourself. Have you ever been in a party conversation that was merely a regurgitation of headlines people saw on their Facebook feeds?
Ask a question about one of these articles, and you won’t get an explanation—instead, like a wet robot, the purveyor immediately concludes that you must disagree with them. Let the indignation and faction-approved name calling begin.
We’ve turned into the cab driver that has to enter each destination into Waze, obliviously driving in circles without ever realizing we’re lost.
I propose this: Do one thing every day that an algorithm didn’t choose for you. Like the famous Eleanor Roosevelt quote, that “one thing” might also happen “scare you.”
Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest that you go to bed with someone of the opposite political persuasion (though if you can stomach it…).
Anyway, start small:
- Find a destination without entering it into an app. Be okay with getting lost for awhile. Ask a human for directions.
- Ask your home assistant to play some random music. Example: “Alexa, play [mumble some nonsense] on Spotify.”
- Instead of letting Netflix tell you what to watch, go to a thrift store and buy a movie you’ve never heard of on DVD or VHS. (Might have to buy something to play it on, too.)
- Instead of letting Amazon tell you what to read, go to a used bookstore. Pick up a random book off of a random shelf and read one random page.
I dream that one day, algorithm-driven services will each have an “anti-algorithm” section:
- Twitter: People we think you don’t want to follow.
- Facebook: News we figured you didn’t want to see.
- Amazon: People who bought this book never buy these books.
- Netflix: Movies we think you’ll hate.
- OkCupid: We’re pretty sure you’d never fuck these people.
For now, the only way to escape algorithms is to be intentional about it. Do one thing every day that an algorithm didn’t choose for you.
So, what are you going to do today?
Haven’t seen my book, The Heart to Start: Stop Procrastinating & Start Creating? Amazon’s algorithms don’t think you want it.