As algorithms are getting smarter, we may be getting dumber. Algorithms collect our record of intellectual exploration; whether it be news articles, gifts, books, clothing, or whatever else we may routinely search out. Then they narrow our choices to highlight those items we are most likely to want, based on our past record. I like the odd mystery story and a few favored authors for my escape reading. Now when I go to Amazon I am greeted by “recommendations” of mysteries and my previously selected authors. With a little extra effort I can search more broadly, but often I do not, and, in fact, I may not know where to search and what to search for to engage in a new area of intellectual curiosity. It may never occur to me to search beyond the scope of my comfort zone and an algorithm is not likely to point me toward a completely new area.
By contrast, if I go to “Barnes and Noble,” there laid for me with glitzy cover art and broad algorithms based on sales, are tables with an array of titles ranging to philosophy, sports, political science, futurology, economics and so forth. I can pass over the tables to get to my routinely preferred works, but there is the off chance that a particular title or author will catch my eye. I stop to browse, and perhaps to buy and read.
In the store I would not think to look for “The Undoing Project,” by Michael Lewis on understanding that “intuition” (as the blurb says) “is increasingly deprecated in favor of algorithmic processes.” But if my eye is caught, I am more likely to pick it up and peruse, and perhaps then to buy and read. Normally, I self-select into my comfort zone by the papers and articles I choose to read and the TV I watch. But with the newspaper, at least, I have to page through the range of pages on a range of subjects and, in the process, may find a new set of facts. That seldom happens with spoon fed TV news or blogs.
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings." We have begun to fall into silos of interest. And as any farmer can tell you, falling into a silo can be fatal.