The mathematics behind our daily digital lives
This week’s Juiced is dedicated to algorithms, the mathematics behind our daily digital lives. From search engines to politics to entertainment, algorithms are thriving in the data consumers produce. In the midst of a revolution built on the power of the human mind, they’re often the force behind success.
Given the sheer volume of data that is collected on a daily basis in today’s digital world, there is no better time to be developing algorithms. Innovative algorithmic approaches to sorting information have played a key role in new business models, including Netflix’s recommendations, and are also being applied in politics, allowing candidates to better target voters. But algorithms have also been developed to help understand very different bodies of data, such as Quid’s Occupy Wall Street algorithm, which sorted through 40,000 articles on the subject and visually mapped out how ideas from the initial Occupy Wall Street rally in New York spread to other groups and other parts of the country.
In 2008, Klout was viewed by most as a gimmick to see how popular they were on Twitter. Three and a half years later, the company is making waves with its scores, calculated through an algorithm with takes in a person’s social media activity and gives them a ranking out of 100. Pushing the concept of brand ambassadors into a new era, companies are pinpointing the socially influential figures in their target audiences and showering them with free gifts in hope of much coveted word of mouth advertising. Do you think letting people have access to so much personal information is worth the freebies?
Serious journalism has long been thought of as a skill, something one has to nurture to be successful, but one that could be dying out with falling sales of newspapers and the rise of free digital content. In another blow to aspiring hacks, news giant Forbes has turned to Narrative Science, a program which uses algorithms to turn data into words, to write some of their articles. These articles will not be winning many awards, but will certainly leave you questioning whether they are written by person or machine. Will this Newspeak journalism satisfy, or do people still covet substantial, thought-provoking reporting?
As algorithms continue to develop there will be many arguments about their role. Is this new use of data an invasion of privacy? Are companies selling information about you that you don’t even remember? Or are we quite happy to have our information passed on, so long as it doesn’t do us any direct harm? Are algorithm-based programs developed enough to compete with human imagination? Are Netflix’s and Spotify’s recommendations better than your friends’ opinions, or are they limiting your discoveries? What do we stand to gain … and at what cost?
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