How Algorithms Influence People’s Thoughts

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Due to its mass amounts of data, algorithms have the ability to alter a person’s experience both online and in the real world. Since they are seen as an all-knowing calculation, they gain the trust of the user and are able to morph their perceptions. Algorithms hinder decision-making and creative processes, thus diminishing the need for original thought and research, ultimately imposing on free will and encouraging conformity in society. As the algorithm tracks every click and search made, it begins to document every detail so that it can alter its methods to specifically suit its users. In doing so, these algorithms have an overlooking power on what posts users see and don’t see. Though the idea of tailoring posts may seem helpful in the sense that everyone’s online experience is unique, it can also alter our viewpoints and influence its users to do things they may not normally do.

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In fact, Facebook has “bragged about how it increased voter turnout (and organ donation) by subtly amping up the social pressures that compel virtuous behavior,” portraying how these algorithms can go beyond personal customization and inspire a change in the user’s behavior outside technology. The issue with this is that it goes beyond its original technological intentions and gives the algorithms more power over individualism. By brainwashing its users and pressuring them to think and do the same things, it inherently is causing conformity. Though it can have a positive turnout, for example the organ donation increases, this is still a flawed concept due it erasing the main right we have as humans: free will. Whether the decision is good or bad, it is morally wrong to dictate what people think they should do.

Free will allows us to be ourselves and make decisions that align with personal beliefs and desires. The same effects are shown with the idea of websites only showing posts and articles it knows the user will click. By not giving many different viewpoints, the user’s biases are constantly confirmed, causing no intellectual stimulation. By algorithms having the power to act as a puppet master, regulating human behavior to mirror the motives of whoever is behind the creation, it gives it a dictator-like control over humans and hinders different opinions. Besides the conforming aspect, individual thinking is also challenged by the idea that these computers and algorithms are ingenious machines that have all the correct answers. The idea behind algorithms is to make life easier for humans and help make decisions based on a calculated formula. With this in mind, people begin to trust these machines to the point that “Algorithms have retired many of the bureaucratic, clerical duties once performed by humans-- and they will soon replace more creative tasks” which suggests that algorithms have the power to replace humans in a multitude of different fields.

Although algorithms work with their own form of intelligence, no machine can mimic the potentials of the human brain. Especially since society requires a level of competition, people have always had the incentive to think and work harder than the people around them in order to be more successful. This competition encourages innovation and attributes to improvements within society. Humans are the reason why technology has been able to come as far is it is. If the creation overtakes the creator, we lose the educated society we’ve spent decades building. Without human thoughts, advancements rely solely on whatever people believe the algorithm says. The idea of algorithms taking over human activities like thought and creativity can take away jobs and opportunities for many people. Though the idea of structural unemployment due to technological advances already exists, the speed at which algorithms advance may do a lot of damage to people’s livelihoods. Allowing such algorithms to take over thought and creativity will lead society into a dystopian future filled with mindless individuals. There will be no true art and innovation since changes will rely on whatever output the algorithm generates.

The previous mention of bureaucratic and clerical duties gives the impression that algorithms can even make decisions in a more administrative sense. By alluding to these positions of power, it foreshadows the idea that these algorithms can go beyond creativity and handle more legal situations. To some, this may seem ideal in the sense that we can shove stressful responsibilities on a machine and have no worry that whoever is in charge will make mistakes. In fact, “Over the last two hundred years, the West has been unable to shake an abiding fantasy, a dream sequence in which we throw out the bum politicians and replace them with engineers-- rule by slide rule” which explains that the development of technology is underlined by the idea that we can use these seemingly imperfect machines to replace imperfect humans. However, the problem with this is some decisions rely on human emotions and logic to make a decision based on morals. Computers and algorithms rely on calculation and have no sense of morality like humans do. As humans, we analyze our ideas, share them and collaborate to think of the best solution for a problem. Once we erase this thinking and rely solely on algorithms, we are not getting the best possible choice, no matter how precise the calculation is. Additionally, these professional roles usually consist of highly educated people we either chose or have a reason to trust, while an unknown algorithm in which we have no choice in its control runs algorithms in sites like Facebook. Ultimately, this concept of blindly trusting computations over human thought restricts individual thoughts, turning society into a nightmare, rather than a “dream”.

Along with influencing behavior, algorithms also influence decisions made as a consumer. As people began to entrust technology, they also began to switch to online forms of shopping. Like Facebook, sites like Amazon and eBay also fall in the realm of manipulating consumer behavior via algorithms. These sites have the ability to choose what products come up first and what doesn’t come up at all. The same idea goes for almost anything that is looked up on the internet. Users begin to trust whatever comes up first, assuming the computer will give them the best quality and deal, when in reality they can put whatever they want. Whether they are choosing in the best interest of the user or not, “these are legitimate choices – and perhaps wise business decisions – but they are choices, not science” which shows that though algorithms rely on calculations, they still have a sense of flexibility in what data they use. The problem with this is that what the user sees is not fully authentic. Companies can bribe the engineers behind the algorithms to create a bias towards their products. This shows a possibility for corruption in the institutions behind algorithms. This highlights the business component of many of the site’s algorithms exist in and calls to attention the motivation of profit. All this manipulation connects with the idea that beyond just a technological process, algorithms can impose on the way information is presented, thus influencing our behavior and thinking patterns.

Another way algorithms can go beyond technology is through emotions. Businesses like Facebook often want its users to have the desire to come back and use their site. And a common reason people would go back on a website is if it makes them feel good. Facebook recognizes this and Foer mentions how they use the algorithms to their advantage to conduct research on its users. By doing so, they are directly manipulating the user’s mindset without them even knowing. In fact, “ this study was roundly condemned as invasive, but it is not so unusual. As one member of Facebook’s data science team confessed: ‘anyone on that team can run a test. They’re always trying to alter people’s behaviors” which normalizes the idea of manipulating its users. Facebook treats the users like guinea pigs, testing their theories and boundaries. They take advantage of the data collections and use the information they collect to their advantage, to see how they can further play with the human mind. The problem with this lies in the immorality behind these actions. It dehumanizes its users and by altering their moods adds to the idea of conformity. Not only will humans begin to act and think the same, but by making them feel the same algorithms impose on their free will to feel what they want. This constant sense of persuasion over free will gives the algorithms even more of an impact beyond technology. Though the idea of algorithms may seem like a very straightforward calculation, there are many ways that they can go beyond technology and filter into everyday lives. As the world is shifting to a more technology-based world, it constantly adds to the reliance on algorithms, thus adding to its pool of knowledge. Free will will eventually be subsided due to the persuasive powers of algorithms. Humans will eventually conform to one another as they all behave and think the same due to their exposure on websites.

Overall, due to the many ways that algorithms can alter the thoughts and mannerisms, the implications of algorithms stretch beyond technology and their impacts are infinite.

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