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Algorithms are, basically, processes that automated systems like computers use to make decisions. At least in the beginning, they’re created by humans to serve certain purposes, though (especially as machine learning gets better) they can start to change and refine themselves in a way that is opaque to most if not all flesh-and-blood intelligence.

The dangers of relying on algorithms, then, are obvious. The biases of the creator are encoded in the algorithm, which then acts in a way that is trusted to be unbiased, or at least reality-informed. And then self-refining algorithms have the potential to get away from us.

There are plenty of dramatic illustrations of the danger of algorithms, the most terrifyingly-headlined being MIT’s “Why Self-Driving Cars Must Be Programmed to Kill.” 

For our purposes, though, I want to highlight the algorithm’s ability to make the world boring, useless and aggressively average.

I recommend you check out Thomas Baekdal’s “How We Lost Social Media to Algorithms” for a more nuanced conversation, but the idea is that everything from Google to Twitter and Facebook utilize algorithms to help us filter the world.

These algorithms often seek to filter the excess of information out there in a way that’s personalized to our tastes. They take in data about our habits, as well as the habits of our peers, and make decisions about the options with which we are presented.

Filtering sounds great, if it works. The problem is that (check Baekdal for the justification here) algorithms tend to deliver not really the things that truly delight us. They hit us with the best average, which is often the stuff that is shallow, easy and unchallenging to our worldviews.

Here, then, the root problem is the same as MIT’s self-driving murder cars: we’re ceding decisions we might be better off making for ourselves to algorithms that no one truly understands or controls.

The extreme outcome, like the car, is like something out of The Twilight Zone.

But the more common day-to-day outcome, the one that we’re all more likely to suffer from in our lives, is the sacrifice of the chance to be challenged, surprised and delighted.

I try and counter this from a marketing perspective as often as I can by creating effective communications and then doing my best to ensure that they cut through the noise. If possible, I try to sidestep algorithms altogether.

We’ll have to be crafty, though, to invent new ways to do in an increasingly algorithmic world.

If you have thoughts on this, find me on Twitter at @danieljflowers to chat!

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