Resisting the Habits of the Algorithmic Mind

Algorithms, we are told, “rule our world.” They are ubiquitous. They lurk in the shadows, shaping our lives without our consent. They may revoke your driver’s license, determine whether you get your next job, or cause the stock market to crash. More worrisome still, they can also be the arbiters of lethal violence. No wonder one scholar has dubbed 2015 “the year we get creeped out by algorithms.” While some worry about the power of algorithms, other think we are in danger of overstating their significance or misunderstanding their nature. Some have even complained that we are treating algorithms like gods whose fickle, inscrutable wills control our destinies.

Clearly, it’s important that we grapple with the power of algorithms, real and imagined, but where do we start? It might help to disambiguate a few related concepts that tend to get lumped together when the word algorithm (or the phrase “Bid Data”) functions more as a master metaphor than a concrete noun. I would suggest that we distinguish at least three realities: data, algorithms, and devices. Through the use of our devices we generate massive amounts of data, which would be useless were it not for analytical tools, algorithms prominent among them. It may be useful to consider each of these separately; at least we should be mindful of the distinctions.

We should also pay some attention to the language we use to identify and understand algorithms. As Ian Bogost has forcefully argued, we should certainly avoid implicitly deifying algorithms by how we talk about them. But even some of our more mundane metaphors are not without their own difficulties. In a series of posts at The Infernal Machine, Kevin Hamilton considers the implications of the popular “black box” metaphor and how it encourages us to think about and respond to algorithms.

The black box metaphor tries to get at the opacity of algorithmic processes. Inputs are transformed into outputs, but most of us have no idea how the transformation was effected. More concretely, you may have been denied a loan or job based on the determinations of a program running an algorithm, but how exactly that determination was made remains a mystery.

In his discussion of the black box metaphor, Hamilton invites us to consider the following scenario:

“Let’s imagine a Facebook user who is not yet aware of the algorithm at work in her social media platform. The process by which her content appears in others’ feeds, or by which others’ material appears in her own, is opaque to her. Approaching that process as a black box, might well situate our naive user as akin to the Taylorist laborer of the pre-computer, pre-war era. Prior to awareness, she blindly accepts input and provides output in the manufacture of Facebook’s product. Upon learning of the algorithm, she experiences the platform’s process as newly mediated. Like the post-war user, she now imagines herself outside the system, or strives to be so. She tweaks settings, probes to see what she has missed, alters activity to test effectiveness. She grasps at a newly-found potential to stand outside this system, to command it. We have a tendency to declare this a discovery of agency—a revelation even.”

But how effective is this new way of approaching her engagement with Facebook, now informed by the black box metaphor? Hamilton thinks “this grasp toward agency is also the beginning of a new system.” “Tweaking to account for black-boxed algorithmic processes,” Hamilton suggests, “could become a new form of labor, one that might then inevitably find description by some as its own black box, and one to escape.” Ultimately, Hamilton concludes, “most of us are stuck in an ‘opt-in or opt-out’ scenario that never goes anywhere.”

If I read him correctly, Hamilton is describing an escalating, never-ending battle to achieve a variety of desired outcomes in relation to the algorithmic system, all of which involve securing some kind of independence from the system, which we now understand as something standing apart and against us. One of those outcomes may be understood as the state Evan Selinger and Woodrow Hartzog have called obscurity, “the idea that when information is hard to obtain or understand, it is, to some degree, safe.” “Obscurity,” in their view, “is a protective state that can further a number of goals, such as autonomy, self-fulfillment, socialization, and relative freedom from the abuse of power.”

Another desired outcome that fuels resistance to black box algorithms involves what we might sum up as the quest for authenticity. Whatever relative success algorithms achieve in predicting our likes and dislikes, our actions, our desires–such successes are often experienced as an affront to our individuality and autonomy. Ironically, the resulting battle against the algorithm often secures the their relative victory by fostering what Frank Pasquale has called the algorithmic self, constantly modulating itself in response/reaction to the algorithms it encounters.

More recently, Quinn Norton expressed similar concerns from a slightly different angle: “Your internet experience isn’t the main result of algorithms built on surveillance data; you are. Humans are beautifully plastic, endlessly adaptable, and over time advertisers can use that fact to make you into whatever they were hired to make you be.”

Algorithms and the Banality of Evil

These concerns about privacy or obscurity on the one hand and agency or authenticity on the other are far from insignificant. Moving forward, though, I will propose another approach to the challenges posed by algorithmic culture, and I’ll do so with a little help from Joseph Conrad and Hannah Arendt.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as the narrator, Marlow, makes his way down the western coast of Africa toward the mouth of the Congo River in the service of a Belgian trading company, he spots a warship anchored not far from shore: “There wasn’t even a shed there,” he remembers, “and she was shelling the bush.”

“In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water,” he goes on, “there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent …. and nothing happened. Nothing could happen.” “There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding,” he concluded. This curious and disturbing sight is the first of three such cases encountered by Marlow in quick succession.

Not long after he arrived at the Company’s station, Marlow heard a loud horn and then saw natives scurry away just before witnessing an explosion on the mountainside: “No change appeared on the face of the rock. They were building a railway. The cliff was not in the way of anything; but this objectless blasting was all the work that was going on.”

These two instances of seemingly absurd, arbitrary action are followed by a third. Walking along the station’s grounds, Marlow “avoided a vast artificial hole somebody had been digging on the slope, the purpose of which I found it impossible to divine.” As they say: two is a coincidence; three’s a pattern.

Nestled among these cases of mindless, meaningless action, we encounter as well another kind of related thoughtlessness. The seemingly aimless shelling he witnessed at sea, Marlow is assured, targeted an unseen camp of natives. Registering the incongruity, Marlow exclaims, “he called them enemies!” Later, Marlow recalls the shelling off the coastline when he observed the natives scampering clear of each blast on the mountainside: “but these men could by no stretch of the imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea.”

Taken together these incidents convey a principle: thoughtlessness couples with ideology to abet violent oppression. We’ll come back to that principle in a moment, but, before doing so, consider two more passages from the novel. Just before that third case of mindless action, Marlow reflected on the peculiar nature of the evil he was encountering:

“I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men–men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of rapacious and pitiless folly.”

Finally, although more illustrations could be adduced, after an exchange with an insipid, chatty company functionary, who is also an acolyte of Mr. Kurtz, Marlow had this to say: “I let him run on, the papier-mâché Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.”

That sentence, to my mind, most readily explains why T.S. Eliot chose as an epigraph for his 1925 poem, “The Hollow Men,” a line from Heart of Darkness: “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.” This is likely an idiosyncratic reading, so take it with the requisite grain of salt, but I take Conrad’s papier-mâché Mephistopheles to be of a piece with Eliot’s hollow men, who having died are remembered “Not as lost

Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.”

For his part, Conrad understood that these hollow men, these flabby devils were still capable of immense mischief. Within the world as it is administered by the Company, there is a great deal of doing but very little thinking or understanding. Under these circumstances, men are characterized by a thoroughgoing superficiality that renders them willing, if not altogether motivated participants in the Company’s depredations. Conrad, in fact, seems to have intuited the peculiar dangers posed by bureaucratic anomie and anticipated something like what Hannah Arendt later sought to capture in her (in)famous formulation, “the banality of evil.”

If you are familiar with the concept of the banality of evil, you know that Arendt conceived of it as a way of characterizing the kind of evil embodied by Adolph Eichmann, a leading architect of the Holocaust, and you may now be wondering if I’m preparing to argue that algorithms will somehow facilitate another mass extermination of human beings.

Not exactly. I am circumspectly suggesting that the habits of the algorithmic mind are not altogether unlike the habits of the bureaucratic mind. (Adam Elkus makes a similar correlation here, but I think I’m aiming at a slightly different target.) Both are characterized by an unthinking automaticity, a narrowness of focus, and a refusal of responsibility that yields the superficiality or hollowness Conrad, Eliot, and Arendt all seem to be describing, each in their own way. And this superficiality or hollowness is too easily filled with mischief and cruelty.

While Eichmann in Jerusalem is mostly remembered for that one phrase (and also for the controversy the book engendered), “the banality of evil” appears, by my count, only once in the book. Arendt later regretted using the phrase, and it has been widely misunderstood. Nonetheless, I think there is some value to it, or at least to the condition that it sought to elucidate. Happily, Arendt returned to the theme in a later, unfinished work, The Life of the Mind.

Eichmann’s trial continued to haunt Arendt. In the Introduction, Arendt explained that the impetus for the lectures that would become The Life of the Mind stemmed from the Eichmann trial. She admits that in referring to the banality of evil she “held no thesis or doctrine,” but she now returns to the nature of evil embodied by Eichmann in a renewed attempt to understand it: “The deeds were monstrous, but the doer … was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.” She might have added: “… if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.”

There was only one “notable characteristic” that stood out to Arendt: “it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness.” Arendt’s close friend, Mary McCarthy, felt that this word choice was unfortunate. “Inability to think” rather than thoughtlessness, McCarthy believed, was closer to the sense of the German word Gedankenlosigkeit.

Later in the Introduction, Arendt insisted “absence of thought is not stupidity; it can be found in highly intelligent people, and a wicked heart is not its cause; it is probably the other way round, that wickedness may be caused by absence of thought.”

Arendt explained that it was this “absence of thinking–which is so ordinary an experience in our everyday life, where we have hardly the time, let alone the inclination, to stop and think–that awakened my interest.” And it posed a series of related questions that Arendt sought to address:

“Is evil-doing (the sins of omission, as well as the sins of commission) possible in default of not just ‘base motives’ (as the law calls them) but of any motives whatever, of any particular prompting of interest or volition?”

“Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty for telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?”

All told, Arendt arrived at this final formulation of the question that drove her inquiry: “Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it?”

It is with these questions in mind–questions, mind you, not answers–that I want to return to the subject with which we began, algorithms.

Outsourcing the Life of the Mind

Momentarily considered apart from data collection and the devices that enable it, algorithms are principally problem solving tools. They solve problems that ordinarily require cognitive labor–thought, decision making, judgement. It is these very activities–thinking, willing, and judging–that structure Arendt’s work in The Life of the Mind. So, to borrow the language that Evan Selinger has deployed so effectively in his critique of contemporary technology, we might say that algorithms outsource the life of the mind. And, if Arendt is right, this outsourcing of the life of the mind is morally consequential.

The outsourcing problem is at the root of much of our unease with contemporary technology. Machines have always done things for us, and they are increasingly doing things for us and without us. Increasingly, the human element is displaced in favor of faster, more efficient, more durable, cheaper technology. And, increasingly, the displaced human element is the thinking, willing, judging mind. Of course, the party of the concerned is most likely the minority party. Advocates and enthusiasts rejoice at the marginalization or eradication of human labor in its physical, mental, emotional, and moral manifestations. They believe that the elimination of all of this labor will yield freedom, prosperity, and a golden age of leisure. Critics meanwhile, and I count myself among them, struggle to articulate a compelling and reasonable critique of this scramble to outsource various dimensions of the human experience.

But perhaps we have ignored another dimension of the problem, one that the outsourcing critique itself might, possibly, encourage. Consider this:  to say that algorithms are displacing the life of the mind is to unwittingly endorse a terribly impoverished account of the life of the mind. For instance, if I were to argue that the ability to “Google” whatever bit of information we happen to need when we need it leads to an unfortunate “outsourcing” of our memory, it may be that I am already giving up the game because I am implicitly granting that a real equivalence exists between all that is entailed by human memory and the ability to digitally store and access information. A moments reflection, of course, will reveal that human remembering involves considerably more than the mere retrieval of discreet bits of data. The outsourcing critique, then, valuable as it is, must also challenge the assumption that the outsourcing occurs without remainder.

Viewed in this light, the problem with outsourcing the life of the mind is that it encourages an impoverished conception of what constitutes the life of the mind in the first place. Outsourcing, then, threatens our ability to think not only because some of our “thinking” will be done for us; it will do so because, if we are not careful, we will be habituated into conceiving of the life of the mind on the model of the problem-solving algorithm. We would thereby surrender the kind of thinking that Arendt sought to describe and defend, thinking that might “condition” us against the varieties of evil that transpire in environments of pervasive thoughtlessness.

In our responses to the concerns raised by algorithmic culture, we tend to ask, What can we do? Perhaps, this is already to miss the point by conceiving of the matter as a problem to be solved by something like a technical solution. Perhaps the most important and powerful response is not an action we take but rather an increased devotion to the life of the mind. The phrase sounds quaint, or, worse, elitist. As Arendt meant it, it was neither. Indeed, Arendt was convinced that if thinking was somehow essential to moral action, it must be accessible to all: “If […] the ability to tell right from wrong should turn out to have anything to do with the ability to think, then we must be able to ‘demand’ its exercise from every sane person, no matter how erudite or ignorant, intelligent or stupid, he may happen to be.”

And how might we pursue the life of the mind? Perhaps the first, modest step in that direction is simply the cultivation of times and spaces for thinking, and perhaps also resisting the urge to check if there is an app for that.

Stuck Behind a Plow in India

So this is going to come off as more than a bit cynical, but, for what it’s worth, I don’t intend it to be.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard an interesting claim expressed by disparate people in strikingly similar language. The claim was always some variation of the following: the most talented person in the world is most likely stuck behind a plow in some third world country. The recurring formulation caught my attention, so I went looking for the source.

As it turns out, sometime in 2014, Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, proposed the following:

“The biggest impact on the world will be universal access to all human knowledge. The smartest person in the world currently could well be stuck behind a plow in India or China. Enabling that person — and the millions like him or her — will have a profound impact on the development of the human race.”

It occurred to me that this “stuck behind a plow” claim is the 21st century version of the old “rags to riches” story. The rags to riches story promoted certain virtues–hard work, resilience, thrift, etc.–by promising that they will be extravagantly rewarded. Of course, such extravagant rewards have always been rare and rarely correlated to how hard one might be willing to work. Which is not, I hasten to add, a knock against hard work and its rewards, such as they may be. But, to put the point more critically, the genre served interests other than those of its ostensible audience. And so it is with the “stuck behind a plow” pitch.

The “rags to riches/stuck behind a plow” narrative is an egalitarian story, at least on the surface. It inspires the hope that an undiscovered Everyman languishing in impoverished obscurity, properly enabled, can hope to be a person of world-historical consequence, or at least remarkably prosperous. It’s a happy claim, and, of course, impossible to refute–not that I’m particularly interested in refuting the possibility.

The problem, as I see it, is that, coming from the would-be noble enablers, it’s also a wildly convenient, self-serving claim. Who but Google could enable such benighted souls by providing universal access to all human knowledge?

Never mind that the claim is hyperbolic and traffics in an impoverished notion of what counts as knowledge. Never mind, as well, that, even if we grant the hyperbole, access to knowledge by itself cannot transform a society, cure its ills, heal its injustices, or lift the poor out of their poverty.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Before he ships off to the Congo, Marlow’s aunt, who had helped secure his job with the Company, gushes about the nobility of work he is undertaking. Marlow would be “something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle.” In her view, he would be “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways.”

Then comes the wonderfully deadpanned line that we would do well to remember:

“I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.”