Culture is future » Innovation and digital

11.09.2015

Contribution: « A quoi rêvent les algorithmes » or the new roads to freedom, by Paul Vacca

It’s a fact. Algorithmes have entrenched themselves in our digital lives, progressively mapping a matrix for a model of society that they use to lock us up. For Dominique Cardon, author and sociologist of A quoi rêvent les algorithmes (Le Seuil) we have to free ourselves from them. But from the inside. By understanding its mecanismes and by taking back our freedom « in our hands ». A critical apporach that is empowering and citizen.

Here we have a little red book that will bring a cultural revolution. In a few 100 pages, À quoi rêvent les algorithmes of Dominique Cardon (Seuil) succeeds in the feat of explaining clearly the way algorithms work and the nature of the real impact they have on our lives. But contrary to thousands of pages already written condemning algorithms from the outside, this book takes the bet of sharing with the enemy. It proposes to free us by helping us understand the algorithms from the inside.

Because, precisely, algorithms do not come from the outside. Before anything else, it makes up our way of access within the chaos of the Web. Just like glasses that allow people to become web literate. Without them, the Internet would only be an amorphous mass of data devoid of any meaning.

Algorithms started to dominate the Internet as the web evolved. The author draws out the genealogy in four periods. First there were audience measuring via the click counts that brought the rise of sites according to their popularity; then, Google’s algorithm was introduced which allowed pages to be ranked according to the number of links each contained; furthermore, to the favor the birth of social network the arrival of reputation measures by likes and affinity-based exchanges; lastly, the rise of ‘predictive’ algorithms by analysis behavior patterns and traces.

Four ways of calculation (clicks, links, likes and traces) combine today to form a matrix – the authors calls a « black box » - used by each one of us to access, as if natural, the data on the Internet.

What does the author show us that allows us to enter in this « black box »? That each method of calucation hosts an ideology.

By offering us the possibility to have navigate the Internet, they ipso facto impose their own perspectives.  Without giving into paranoia or conspiracy theories about the assumed Machiavellianism of algorithms or the perversity of their creators, the author shows us why algorithms are de facto bearers of a political project that is building the contours of the Internet and our society. With three major undesired effects:

  • First, by creating what Dominique Cardon calls a « society of calculations », a society where everything is placed under encryption, percentage, hierarchy and rankings based on clicks, likes, link and in which all that is not measurable becomes invisible and in the margins ;
  • Next, by favoring the advancement of first-comers by the rule of cumulated advantages. Internet is the place where the ‘winner takes all’, the winners sweeping all of their bets, where 1% or the participants offer themselves 90% visibility.
  • And last, by reinforcing the standard reproductions. Because the so-called predictive algorithms – for example – « you like this, you would like this » - will constantly hypothesize our future to be each time a reproduction of our past. Thus, will they trace invisible circles around each of us, a sort of transparent cage, constructed by our own intervention?

There lies the paradox of algorithms: by offering us the freedom to find us online, at the same time they take away our ability to freely navigate within it.

With them, here we are thus in a conditioned freedom. Or more exactly, if we were to follow the author, in a freedom conditioned by the exercise of our own liberty. Because for him, there is no fatalism facing algorithms. It’s up to us to counter the negative effects by taking back out freedom and our power over them. This book invites us to go « manual mode », meaning to take back in our hands, to resist formatting and to self-determination of the algorithms by producing diversity, exchange and surprises. Basically to be human.

The critical approach towards algorithms propose by Dominique Cardon is empowering. It opens new roads to our freedom and sketches new form of citizenship. A citizenship for our digital times. Until when to start teaching in elementary schools, middle/high-schools and colleges?  

À quoi rêvent les algorithmes - Nos vies à l’heure des big data

Dominique Cardon (La République des Idées, Seuil, 2015) 

About Paul Vacca

Paul Vacca is a novelist, essayist and consultant. He scans the social transformations related to digital technologies as well as the trends in media and cultural markets. He published articles inTechnikartLe Monde and La Revue des Deux Mondes, is a speaker for conferences at the Institut Français de la Mode and collaborates to the think-tank La Villa Numeris.

Recent publications: the novel Comment Thomas Leclerc 10 ans 3 mois et 4 jours est devenu Tom L’éclair et a sauvé le monde (Belfond 2015) and the essay La Société du hold-up - Le nouveau récit du capitalisme (Fayard 2012).

On Twitter : @Paul_Vacca