Do we treat algorithms as a religion? Computing education to de-mystify the algorithmic world
Ian Bogost believes that an “algorithmic society” is a myth, and believes that we treat algorithms as a religion.
I don’t want to downplay the role of computation in contemporary culture. Striphas and Manovich are right—there are computers in and around everything these days. But the algorithm has taken on a particularly mythical role in our technology-obsessed era, one that has allowed it wear the garb of divinity. Concepts like “algorithm” have become sloppy shorthands, slang terms for the act of mistaking multipart complex systems for simple, singular ones. Of treating computation theologically rather than scientifically or culturally.
This attitude blinds us in two ways. First, it allows us to chalk up any kind of computational social change as pre-determined and inevitable. It gives us an excuse not to intervene in the social shifts wrought by big corporations like Google or Facebook or their kindred, to see their outcomes as beyond our influence. Second, it makes us forget that particular computational systems are abstractions, caricatures of the world, one perspective among many. The first error turns computers into gods, the second treats their outputs as scripture.
I respond with another quote:
“And this is that decision which are going to affect a great deal of our lives, indeed whether we live at all, will have to be taken or actually are being taken by extremely small number of people, who are normally scientists. The execution of these decisions has to be entrusted to people who do not quite understand what the depth of the argument is. That is one of the consequences of the lapse or gulf in communication between scientists and nonscientists. There it is. A handful of people, having no relation to the will of society, having no communication with the rest of society, will be taking decisions in secret which are going to affect our lives in the deepest sense.”
That’s C.P. Snow in 1961 (Computers and the World of the Future, ed Martin Greenberger, MIT Press), talking about why everyone on campus should (explicitly) learn algorithms. He foresaw the “algorithmic culture” where algorithms control “a great deal of our lives, indeed whether we live at all.” He had two concerns. One was that the people writing those algorithms are making decisions when they implement them that don’t reflect social or political will. The second was that the “nonscientists” were unwilling to learn the algorithms. Explicitly, Snow’s argument was that those who don’t understand algorithms are at the mercy of those who do. His book, The Two Cultures, blamed the nonscientists for not making the effort to learn the science and algorithms so that they could participate in scientific discourse.
Today, Snow might agree with Bogost. When we don’t understand the algorithms that control our lives, we might see them as divine or magical. Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The corollary (see here) is a better explanation of the phenomena that Bogost describes, ” Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who don’t understand it.”
I use the above quote in my talks on why we need computing for everyone. Snow is arguing that CS Education is a critical part of a functioning “algorithmic society.” If our social processes and rules are built into the software, not understanding algorithms keeps you from understanding and influencing the algorithms that control your life. Thomas Jefferson said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Knowledge about computing is part of that education that keeps the citizenry free in today’s algorithm-driven world.
The onus to enable citizens to be free in an algorithm-driven world is on us in computer science, not on the citizenry alone. We have too much power to hide our algorithms behind interfaces and firewalls. We have a responsibility to make the computational world (and the algorithms that run it) accessible and understandable. As Diana Franklin said in her recent CACM essay (which I mentioned here), it’s up to computer science to make computing education work.