Printed: 2020-05-27

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





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The Algorithmic Society and the Birth of Religion

piero scaruffi


scaruffi.com


http://www.scaruffi.com/phi/syn185.html

June 26, 2015

Algorithms increasingly guide our daily life: Google’s ranking algorithm pretty much decides which pages we visit, and therefore which information we access; Amazon’s algorithm influences which books we read; dating algorithms decide your sexual life and possibly your marriage; the smartphone’s navigation algorithm decides which streets we take; Yelp’s algorithm decides where we eat (and it is a simple average!)

Facebook’s proximity algorithm suggests with whom we should be friend; less visible Wall Street algorithms drive financial markets; Pandora’s algorithm picks the music that we listen to; newspapers and magazines use relevance algorithms to pick the articles we read; all of these services have advertising algorithms to influence what we buy and therefore what we will use; “national security” algorithms will increasingly be used to decide whose activities have to be monitored, and therefore how much freedom and privacy we are entitled to.

The power of software is that it is a universal language. Everybody speaks the same language in the society of software.

The power of user interfaces is that they too are universal languages. Everybody interacts the same way with the computer or smartphone.

Software is impartial, unbiased, incorruptible, unbribable, and it has no religious, ethnic, political preferences.

The algorithm can be initially fooled by a special-interest group (e.g. if many people click on “Like” or give high ratings to their friend’s restaurant) but in the long term it is truly democratic (it reflects the will of the masses) and cannot be fooled by a single individual the way people can be fooled by individuals: it is not rhetoric, it is math.

The hacker is the individual who wants to fool the algorithm, not using rhetoric to hijack the masses but using a better algorithm to hijack the algorithm and therefore hijack the masses.

Every time the hacker wins, the algorithm’s human attendants (the software engineers hired to make sure that the algorithm cannot be hacked) improve the algorithm so that it becomes more powerful and less vulnerable to hacking.

The algorithm tends towards perfection and omnipotence.

De facto, the hacker is fighting a non-human being, the algorithm, which, like a deity, is attended by humans, who behave like priests.

The evolution of algorithms is driven by both their attendants, who keep refining them, and by the hackers, who keep attacking them; the evolution of the deity is driven by both its priests and its critics.

The critics, not only the attendants, are essential to shape the algorithm.

Maybe the progress of algorithms in the algorithmic society of the 21st century is showing us how religions were shaped in history.


piero scaruffi is an author, cultural historian and blogger who has written extensively about a wealth of topics, ranging from cognitive science to music.

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