Media Perspective: Did you know your life is governed by a set of algorithms?
A view from Russell Davies

Media Perspective: Did you know your life is governed by a set of algorithms?

I'm not a paranoid person. I assume the world is more explained by cock-up than conspiracy.

But if I was ever going to be alarmed by hidden forces, I think it would be because of algorithms: the mathematical assumptions baked into so much of modern life. And, recently, my little suspicions of hidden algorithmic control were strengthened by a fantastic presentation at the Lift Conference by Kevin Slavin called "Those Algorithms That Govern Our Lives". You can Google it to find it.

And, of course, the fact that you can Google it to find it is a product of an algorithm acting on the world, an algorithm that few of us think about (except for SEO specialists, who think about little else) but which we use every day. Google has been very smart in giving us all a simple explanation of how it works - the more people link to something, the more useful it's assumed to be. But it's obviously more complicated than that, complicated and secret - to try to prevent it from being gamed.

But it's so important to the way the world works that recent changes to the algorithm made it on to the news. The changes it made were tweaks to try to prevent content-farmers getting to the top of Google searches. Content-farmers being people who create thin, cheap content-on-demand in response to what ranks highly on Google. Which means we're seeing a battle between algorithms, one set trying to understand and exploit the activities of the other. And all those activities are entirely opaque to most of us, while being hugely important to our lives.

Thinking about algorithms in the world gets more interesting if you remember that they're not just abstract mathematical concepts - at their heart are some human assumptions about how the world works. Humans who aren't you. The MP3s you listen to sound the way they do because the people who built the compression algorithms decided that music should sound a particular way, that certain compromises between file size and audio content were acceptable. Your TV programmes look like they do for similar reasons. The songs you hear on the radio are algorithmically determined. And, in some instances, what songs and movies get made in the first place is an algorithmic decision too.

We marketing and ad folk are, of course, deeply familiar with this sort of thing already. Most pre-testing regimes contain some mathematical assumption or formula about which bit of data is important and which isn't. Nothing particularly wrong with that. (Apart from the obvious.) But where algorithms get tricky is when they're too complex for people to understand. We'll talk about that next week. In the meantime, keep an eye out for the algorithms - they're everywhere!