Algorithms nowadays do more than determining which books, DVDs, CDs or whatever you might want at Amazon. While that’s always amusing for me, given my catholic tastes (and no, I don’t like Johnny Cash, but thanks for keeping on suggesting him), it’s more puzzling when it decides that my partner – who recently bought a tent – must now want several more. We’re not planning on building a tented city anywhere, but Amazon’s algorithms struggle with the difference between wants and needs, no matter how many books about Maslow’s Heirarchy their parent site may sell.
Commonly overlooked but increasingly ubiquitous in our lives, algorithms deserve more of our attention. And better understanding: the nearest convenient dictionaries define an algorithm as “A process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, esp. by a computer” or – in the ‘defined for kids’ option – as “a step-by-step method for solving a problem (as finding the greatest common divisor) or accomplishing a goal”. As the embedding of algorithmic ‘solutions’ (in the Private Eye column sense) goes, suggesting a book or two is relatively harmless: I can combine my catholicism with a discriminatory touch. But the human tendency to codify has seen them implemented in places where the potential is more significant, and not necessarily in a positive way.