In Search of an Algorithm for Well-Being
Do we want a world optimized for engagement?
A unique feature of our times is that algorithms direct our choices, fill our days, and rule our lives.
These opaque and ubiquitous programs that no one completely understands define, for the most part, our non-negligible digital realities. When you’re listening to music on Spotify or iTunes, playing a vid on YouTube, looking for the next birthday gift at Amazon, binge-watching your favorite show on Netflix, or even searching for the news on Google, it’s an algorithm that decides the pool of options available to you — and, indirectly, what you’ll eventually consume.
Algorithms create funnels in the form of feeds and recommendation systems that bias our perception of reality. This feels fine when Spotify hits the jackpot with a catchy tune, but not so much when Facebook filters events happening on the other side of the world to match what you already want to see. Such an amount of influence over people entails great consequences, which although not intrinsic to the algorithms, are accurately planned by those who rule the internet — the big tech corporations.
Algorithms give us what we want, and so we want more of them. Their design makes them addictive, perfectly optimized for us to keep engaging in more content. More time using an app means more profit, and that’s what companies are for. But is this a game in which anything goes? Tech ethics expert Gemma Galdón says “we have allowed the tech industry a very anomalous space of non-accountability in our society. And it must be subjected to the same controls as any innovation space that surrounds us.”
When I discuss or read about the effects of algorithms and social media, the debate often lingers around the same idea: How can we defend ourselves from this algorithmic vicious cycle? I can control my time on social media, or even delete my profiles. I can go off the internet for a few days every month. And I can research news thoroughly to not fall victim to fake news and misinformation. That’s perfectly fine, but there’s something about that narrative that bothers me: Why does that burden rest upon us? Why aren’t we questioning the frame that defines algorithms as inherently designed to take up our time and attention, exploiting…