What Algorithms Know About You Based on Your Grocery Cart
And more strange tales from the Wild West of data
Anyone who has ever visited Jones Beach on Long Island, New York, will have driven under a series of bridges on their way to the ocean. These bridges, primarily built to filter people on and off the highway, have an unusual feature. As they gently arc over the traffic, they hang extraordinarily low, sometimes leaving as few as nine feet of clearance from the tarmac.
There’s a reason for this strange design. In the 1920s, Robert Moses, a powerful urban planner in New York, was keen to keep his newly finished, award-winning state park at Jones Beach the preserve of white and wealthy Americans. Knowing that his preferred clientele would travel to the beach in their private cars, while people from poor black neighborhoods would get there by bus, Moses deliberately tried to limit access by building hundreds of low-lying bridges along the highway. Too low for the 12-foot buses to pass under.
Racist bridges aren’t the only inanimate objects that have had quiet, clandestine control over people. History is littered with examples of objects and inventions with a power beyond their professed purpose. Sometimes it’s deliberately and maliciously factored into their design, but at other times, it’s a result of thoughtless omissions.
Modern inventions are no different. Just ask the residents of Scunthorpe, in the north of England, who were blocked from opening AOL accounts after the internet giant created a new profanity filter that objected to the name of their town. Or Chukwuemeka Afigbo, the Nigerian man who discovered an automatic hand-soap dispenser that perfectly released soap whenever his white friend placed their hand under the machine but refused to acknowledge his darker skin. Or Mark Zuckerberg, who, when writing the code for Facebook in his dorm room in Harvard in 2004, would never have imagined his creation would go on to be accused of helping manipulate votes in elections around the globe.
Behind each of these inventions is an algorithm. The invisible pieces of code that form the gears and cogs of the modern machine age, algorithms have given the world everything from social media feeds to search engines and satellite navigation to music…