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Richard Geldard

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Polarization and Algorithms

Posted: 03/ 1/2012 12:56 pm

If you haven't already noticed, your search results on Google, the choices presented on YouTube and Netflix, are being tailored to what they think are your interests, based of course on previous choices. Search engines and big retailers like Amazon also focus on your purchases to offer items they think you will buy next.

All of this is controlled not by shadowy figures in Dubai or Palo Alto but by algorithms, computer code which digests your entries and serves you accordingly. Most savvy geeks have known this for a long time, but the increase in tailored results has now risen far enough to be recognized by ordinary users, and there are those of us who are not happy about it. It's like walking into a restaurant and automatically being served what you ordered last week.

In this political season, the effect of algorithmic control has resulted in an increase in polarization. We are all labeled progressive, liberal, conservative or ultra-conservative by the news and opinion sites we commonly visit. The result is that increasingly we grow to despise the other side, thinking them stupid and uninformed, and the "other side" has exactly the same opinion.

On television, the same is true in terms of the information we receive if we watch MSNBC or FOX News, but at least our TV doesn't record those choices. We still have to choose each time we tune in.

Since these algorithms are here to stay, what all thinking Americans need to do is to consciously mix it up a little to confuse the system. For example, consider various opinion sources. If you regularly visit Mother Jones, then visit National Review. If you read The Nation, also read The New American. If you're really serious about the issues and you read The New Left Review, then also look at The National Interest.

Even if you don't stay long on sites with which you don't agree, the effect will be to neutralize to some extent the algorithmic guidance that is leading you by the nose. The primary point is to fool the algorithm, but a secondary benefit may be to broaden our understanding and maybe, just maybe, bring the country together so that, ultimately, we can get something done for a change.

 
 
 

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