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Algorithms

on April 29, 2012

As we investigated the hoochie algorithm in class, it made me realize how algorithms are all around us.  I know that an algorithm is a step by step set of instructions used to solve a problem, but I no idea how they are prevalently used to sell things to the public.  I thought that it was so interesting to see how all our examples in class were all about people/ companies selling us things.  By fitting us into neatly made columns and categories, companies are able to find out what we like and how we think.  It is scary to think that we are all seen as having dollar signs on the top of our foreheads, just waiting for the next sales pitch to made to us.

But hearing everyone’s example of how an algorithm was applied to them made me also realize that algorithms can also work as a form of stereotyping.  I remember when we got the algorithm assignment, I remembered a time when I went dress shopping with my sister at a high end store in Ala Moana and no one in the store would help us.  Upon looking at the other customers who were being helped, it did not take us long before we figured out that we weren’t being helped because we were not dressed appropriately as we were not wearing designer clothes nor had the matching designer bags/ accessories.  And since many dress stores ask their customers what school they go to, to make sure that no one else from their school is getting the same dress from the store, once the sales ladies heard that the other girls went to Punahou, we knew it was all over for us and there was no way we would have been helped in that particular store.  I hated that feeling though, being stereotyped as not being good enough because we weren’t wearing the right clothes or didn’t go to the right schools.  It was just like in Pretty Woman, when no one would help Julia Roberts when she was shopping at the store on Rodeo Drive.  In that particular instance it is clear that the sales associates in that store were using certain markers to target who the more affluent (and therefore the better) customers.  In seeing how algorithms are used to sell things to people,  I wondered if digital algorithms could in some way be stereotyping people and their habits?  I only wondered because I really disliked being stereotyped in person, I would really not like it to happen online, where we are supposed to be free to be whoever we want to.

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One response to “Algorithms

  1. I wondered if digital algorithms could in some way be stereotyping people and their habits?

    Absolutely. Try and get a loan from a bank. See what happens when you try to get car insurance and they base your rate on your zip code, age, and car color. These algorithms precede computers running them, but now that they’re digital, the commercial relationships can accelerate.

    Now, imagine all the data you are feeding Facebook and Twitter every day. Imagine what types of decisions can be made about you by a machine based on a statistical analysis of your behavior. Right now it’s just dumb ads. But it won’t stay that way for long. Let’s say you sign up for a job-hunting website that will feed jobs to your FB feed based not only on the job you say you’re looking for but on the analysis of your FB profile and job history that a machine has carried out.

    If that worries you, imagine the mistakes that can be made.

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