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The Night of the Algorithms  

We may not have met but I have sure been watching you.

Published: 26th July 2020 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th July 2020 05:17 PM   |  A+A-

Dark web

Representational image (Express Illustrations)

We may not have met but I have sure been watching you. Like in that old Police song. Every breath, every move, every heartbeat and what all goes on in your mind is grist for my mill. Surreptitious and undercover, right this very moment I am peering at you through the hi-res windows of my black-box nest, woven out of layers of coded instruction, which snake through circuit boards, negotiate switches and logic gates and light up dark server farms from Oregon to Osaka with blinking glow worm light. 

Perhaps there are better ways to characterise my tribe for all of us are not made the same. I am part of the ones who can take you down a rabbit hole of extreme opinion where every inch of your inner darkness gets amplified, where subterranean chambers are ablaze with the fire of hate and the venom of religious fundamentalism warps your mind. I am also those referred to by fancy names—Hummingbird, Knife, Boston Shuffler, Sniper, Pragmatic Chaos—fancy features, adjectives like elegant or efficient, and I secretly salivate in my gilded fortress, hungry to gorge on data. 

Yes, I am the big bad algorithm which searches, sorts, ranks, scores, recommends, trades, disrupts and as Frank Pasquale, author of The Black Box Society, would say, sits safely behind a one-way mirror watching you...The night of the algorithm is upon us and these ‘powerful’ computer programmes are getting smarter at milking our network time, manipulating financial markets or even predicting if we are going to have a baby by comparing our shopping data. If you are on that list, don’t get shocked when maternity wear adverts begin to flood your timeline. 

Just the other day tech-giant Google, owner of celebrated search algorithms, announced its USD 10-billion India Digitisation Fund almost half of it to be invested in Reliance’s Jio Platforms. Facebook is also picking up a USD 5.7-billion stake in the same company. These developments are supposedly good for access and employment but with data-hungry corporations casting their net wide and enmeshing themselves in the economy and our lives, we need to be doubly careful about our data and its destiny. 

For the algorithmic workhorses of these giant tech companies are nourished on information and every day we generate truckloads as we go about our lives. The Intercept has reported (2018) how Facebook’s AI-driven prediction engine FBLearner Flow processes user information which is then packaged for corporate clients. Data or the ‘new oil’ is what these smart technologies are after, turning our time on the internet, our frivolities, polemics, consumption records and wish lists, into predictors of behaviour, useful to advertisers. 

The scenario looks ominous when state surveillance comes into the picture. Governments across the world are already sitting on server-loads of citizens’ information, including biometrics, which we are told, not only keeps us safe but also helps in the transfer of social security benefits.

Fair enough, but what happens when transnational corporations, shady contractors and data brokers come into the picture and the sanctity of private information begins to erode? Surely it is not our fault if all this brings the Cambridge Analytica affair to mind.

Shoshana Zuboff in her The Age of Surveillance Capital analysed how commercial surveillance converts our experience into behavioural datasets which essentially keeps its economic engine running. Akin to the surplus value produced by labour, this so called ‘behavioural surplus’ she explains is our information on which algorithms and machine intelligence get to work, creating marketable products that predict our thoughts, preferences and buying behaviour.

“Ideology and economy intersect in various stages of the development of the algorithm,” points out sociologist Paško Bilic in his study of Google's 'search'. While these algorithms nibble away at the brick and mortar of our minds and emotions, we are not allowed to shine a light into the dark chambers where they are pickling away our psychographic profiles to feed their masters. Zealously guarded as trade secrets, unregulated and often touted as ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’, these creatures of the dark are, however, never free of human bias and commercial considerations...

So do not expect me to give up my secrets without a fight. Better forget you had been here and drown in the joys of personalised user experience, shaking off the meaningless vestiges of privacy that still cling to you. Open up your mind to the machine, engage, trade, pontificate and see your popularity soar. Opt into the magic and remember—I will be always watching you.    

(The writer can be contacted at rajat@rajatchaudhuri.net)

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