Power, Algorithms, and Dystopia


I was inspired by a Ted Talk by Zeynep Tufekci called “We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads” (video below). She expands the discussion to how these algorithms:

  1. Are not understood, even by the programmers, how they are able to target individuals, and
  2. Have been used to dissuade individuals from voting.

What caught my attention most was her discussion of how YouTube will progressively “recommend” in the “Up Next” area videos that are more and more extreme. Those algorithms also tailor other content to lead us “down the rabbit hole” deeper into what we already tend to believe.

This helped me understand how people in this country can hold such extremely opposing ideas and beliefs about ‘reality.’ We don’t live in the same world. The information I see and what I hear on my myriad screens does affect my reality because my reality is based on what I see and hear. What I believe to be TRUE can be radically different from what someone else sees as TRUE.

Here’s a simplistic analogy. See a picture of someone slouching on a bench. They are sweaty, clothes disheveled, with streaks of dirt and mud on their clothes and body. One group is told the person is a homeless drug addict. Another group is told the person was taking a break from helping tornado victims clean up and sort though the debris.

Media, in its many forms, tells us how we should interpret events. Just like what we are told (or not told) about the person on the bench shapes a positive or negative opinion about that person, what we are told (or not told) about a situation shapes our opinion about that.

Because the algorithms that shape and direct our online experience guide us by providing more (or more extreme) of the same, our ideas and beliefs continue to be reinforced. Thus, our realities are, in fact, different.

Left unchecked, our country will inevitably become more and more polarized and extreme. I don’t know the solution to bridge the gap, but I do know that Europe has much stricter guidelines about how our information can be used. I welcome your ideas and insights about this issue as I am just starting to grapple with it.


One thought on “Power, Algorithms, and Dystopia

  1. Interesting post Shawn, well written. That’s scary, isn’t it? Personally, I believe that we will need to rely even more heavily on making decisions trusting that inner voice which says, “yes, right” or “no. wrong”. I don’t think we should trust as the final determinant any media that we read.


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