The other day I was reading this article by Tobias Rose-Stockwell. When I finished the article I was struck by how eerily familiar the problem of algorithmic control of human life felt. It took me awhile to put my finger on why it felt familiar.
The article uses the Facebook newsfeed as the primary example/culprit in how algorithms are driving so much of what we consume and how our brains are effectively being rewired by these algorithms until we end up in an echo chamber of messages designed to incite fear and outrage because those are what generate engagement and engagement is what generates ad dollars. It struck me that through the human creation of these algorithms and our succumbing to their use, we have ceded power, control, and our critical and creative thinking capacities to these bits of code. It’s almost like the machines control us. It’s almost like we are slaves to the algorithms.
Is this starting to sound a bit more familiar? Human enslavement to machines has been a subject of creative imagination for generations now. Creators as varied as Tolkien and the Wachowski siblings have wrestled with how industrialization, machines, and computers which bear the promise of enhancing human flourishing actually come to enslave humans and disconnect people from their humanity and the natural world. In Tolkien Sauron and Saruman use the powers of industrialization to create mighty weapons and armies but these are armies without souls. Armies bent only on conquest and destruction. The counterpoint to these armies are the hobbits and the ents. Hobbits make their homes in, around, and in harmony with nature and the ents are nature itself. That is where beauty and humanity lie in the mythology Tolkien created. It was nowhere to be found in the soulless fires of industrialization but in the beauty and stewardship of nature.
The Wachowski siblings created a dystopian masterpiece with their first Matrix film. Long before social media and algorithms took over our lives, they imagined a future where it wasn’t humans controlling and using machines but rather machines controlling and using humans. To recover humanity, a person had to unplug from the Matrix. They had to free themselves from the code that controlled their lives.
There are other examples too. Think of the Terminator films where automated robots go about their cruel and emotionless work of eliminating anyone who stands in the way of their dominance. The robots and their software precursors were created to make humanity safer but instead end up bringing about the destruction of humanity and enslaving people.
For generations our creative minds have recognized the destructive power technology can have on our collective humanity. In recent weeks as the curtain has been pulled back on Facebook and other tech companies, we’ve been given a glimpse into just how much power we’ve voluntarily ceded to algorithms and allowed them to effectively enslave us. So the question is, now that we know how will we respond? Will we shrug our shoulders and continue to give the algorithms exactly what they want? Or will we pull back and consider unplugging from the Matrix and rediscovering what it means to be human and recover our agency and will?