Invisible algorithms and digital semantics

Technology Non-neutrality Principle — is the principle that technologies and services are not neutral, they are biased. They either pursue the creators’ goals, or do not simulate accurately the reality. If this is not acknowledged, the effects that trigger technologies will confuse users and put them at risk.

That principle was stated by the researcher Douglas Rushkoff in his book “Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age.” Rushkoff notes that the network semantics, interfaces and algorithms integrated by the developers into the programs influence our behavior in the Net by far stronger than we think.

Джарон Ланир

Jaron Lanier — a scientist in the field of data visualization and biometric technology, coined the term «virtual reality.» Futurist, popularizer, composer, Conceptology, philosopher, didzherati. Encyclopedia Britannica has included him in the list of 300 top inventors in history.


Famous digerati and virtual reality researcher Jaron Lanier develops this idea in his book “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto.” Jaron Lanier notes that when modelling a computer reality there are some trivial things that are not indeed trivial.

Crude simulation of the reality

Such services as Facebook model complex relationships and processes like friendship and communication. Lanier notes that modern science doesn’t possess enough deep insight into the brain and psyche mechanisms to replicate a phenomenon such as friendship in the digital service in full. The slightest change in design decisions can completely change the behavioral patterns of users and twist severely the entire model.

For instance, Facebook posts of those users whose messages we “like” most often, appear in our news feed more frequently. The name and shape of the “like” is a display of sympathy and approval. It would be easy for the user not used to e-interaction to “like” positive message (e.g. cat picture), but on the subconscious level name and design of the “like” button will create a constraint to “liking” some tragedy news (e.g. an oil tanker wreck). If transform the name and design of the button, for example, into “it’s important” or “note”, it would change the news feed and the information intake pattern of billions of people.

Business interests of the service creators

Evgeny Morozov in his article “The Mindfulness Racket”, The New Republic notes that “we must subject social media to the kind of scrutiny that has been applied to the design of gambling machines in Las Vegas casinos.” Researcher Natasha Dow Schull in her book “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas” uncovers that casino owners are eager to instil in visitors the feeling that it is their own degradation that causes ludomania, while it is the developers who are to blame. Engineers design game machines to sow the seeds of desire and addiction.

Facebook revenue for 2014 amounted to 12.47 milliard dollars, which is 58% more than in 2013.

Facebook Reports Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2014 Results

The same is true for digital services. Users often forget that the algorithms that determine their interaction with the services pursue creators’ goals which do not always coincide with users’ goals. For example, co-founders of the social network Facebook have advertising sale as their business. This is why the Facebook design, as well as the algorithms of service iteration with users are built in such a way that strengthens interaction between users and constantly pushes us to check how many people reacted to our posts. The developers’ interests behind this solution are obvious: the more often a user visits your website endlessly clicking around, the more attractive Facebook appears in the advertisers’ eyes. However, creators’ business interests may collide with the users’ desire of safe and simple communication.

The new literacy

According to Douglas Rushkoff, users must learn “not just how to use programs but how to make them.”

Дуглас Рашкофф «The digital age literacy doesn’t imply the Javascript or PERL knowledge. It is the ability to spot the algorithms and their contribution to the social impact of the “network state of the world”, along with the knack of trying these algorithms to their communications.» Douglas Rushkoff

The Black-Box Principle — people perceive technology as opaque systems operating by the unknown laws.

The majority of users are not familiar with the modern technological principles. We are covered with gadgets. We keep in touch via mobile operators. We are looking for Wi-Fi like dowsers and pay by credit card for products on the website at the other end of the world. But we still treat technology as a mysterious “black box”. It is somewhat of a magic, fateful attitude of the user but not the creator.

The reason why this happens interested Gilbert Simondon , the extraordinary researcher of the philosophy of technology. In Simondon’s view, this problem is stated as the human estrangement from technology. Utilitarian view on the use of devices is inherent in individuals. People are fascinated by the ultimate result, but not in the process or the device itself.

This is why human looses when becomes a “user”, and so does the technical object, which genesis is thereby terminated. Instead of having the technical object evolved into a useful item we now have endless change of novelties, which functions lie under the producers control. People are often deliberately deprived of the creative use of the technologies, they are always given the user role. And it is not only about human laziness.

Thus, engineers in a certain company might have launched one or two all-inclusive camera model, but the developers intentionally limit the functions range so that marketers can release different classes of cameras for different target audiences, and artificially make the line-up obsolete (e.g. when a brand new smartphone has a screen half-inch bigger than the previous one), as well as set prices lucrative for the company.

Modern technological ideology is being built on the capitalism basis. This not only hinders the technological advance, but also trains people not to understand the technology and to be just consumers, but not creators (similar to the animal learned helplessness, people develop a “learned consumer helplessness”).

The visible part of the technical objects strives for simplification: smartphones, music systems and other devices all are black boxes by sight and content. The phones have almost all working parts hidden inside and so that they remain virtually unknown to most users. Progress is going on: main functions are not just hidden inside, they are extruded to the cloud storage, functions are delegated through the network society, thereby taking away the last opportunity for users to grasp the operation principles of the device.

The new creators

The 21st century is the time of dematerialization: of money, design, social sphere, and even the war. True innovation lies in the software code, sewn with invisible threads into our social life, into the services which shape our relationships.

The ability to get into the electronic brains of the devices and program them according to one’s tasks is gaining popularity. Programmers and techno designers are growing into the real mind-boggling creators, magicians and alchemists of today, who use turned inside out electronic devices in their performances and installations. To be a true creator in the new world, you need to know how to program.

The opposite is equally true: the engineers of the 21st century must be sociologists and psychologists with firm political views, and the freer these views are the better for all of us.

The Digital Vocabulary Project is a nuanced perspective to how we, digital media practitioners and theorists look at the digital landscape. The Internet of Things and Big Data have massively revolutionized our lives in profound ways. These technological and structurally changes to our personal and professional lives, has brought about social, cultural and political implications. This nuanced perspective is what project presents to its readers. As a marketing communications professional I have seen numerous studies and analyses written about how the digital revolution is and will continue to create tremendous economic opportunities for brands and marketers. I have also heard perspectives on how consumer behavior is greatly influenced through these advancements in technology. But what Alex and Dmitriy bring to the table is a psychological and sociological perspective to these changes. The Digital Vocabulary Project zeros in on the central theme of digital anthropology — which is increasingly important in this day and age, as we progress into an even more technologically advanced world.

Florent D’Souza
Consultant. Aspiring entrepreneur. Strategist. Marketing communications professional. Polymath.

It’s about time someone(s) put together a GPS for navigating the digital gadget landscape. And Alex and Dmitriy have succeeded in this wonderfully! More than a dictionary of terms that only a geek could love, this vocabulary introduces and explains key terms in both their technical and cultural significance. Moreover there are highlighted key sentences in each section for those who have only an “Internet minute” to cover the material.

Tom Mahon
Technology Publicist, Journalist and Activist
Author “Charged Bodies: People, Power, and Paradox in Silicon Valley”

There is hardly anything more natural to a man than attempts to understand themselves. Every day we think over our behavior, analyze feelings and motives. Technologies are a part of our lives — the further, the greater their impact. It means that our condition, relationships with close ones, friends and colleagues also depend on new world structure. The “Digital Vocabulary” project, laid-back, by dint of observations and researches explains where we have come to, where we are going to, and why everything is the way it is. In other words, it gives meaningfulness to our actions.

Anastasia Chernikova
IT Journalist, Editor at Hopes & Fears

“Digital Vocabulary” is an extremely time-sensitive project. A few years ago, warnings regarding new technologies could be considered far-fetched. However, today we understand that the principle “I’ll turn it off if I please” no longer works: technology has been long now deciding when it is time to switch us on and off — by operating cycles, TV-program schedules, alarm clocks in smartphones, mobile apps, games and wearable devices. An important thing is that operational guidelines go hand-in-hand with theory. Thus, it allows not only to adapt to the prevailing conditions but also to suggest how the situation will develop further. And then, apparently, the next initiative by “Digital Vocabulary” authors will be required — new technologies and social changes are not long in coming.

Anton Gumenskiy
Media Researcher, Lecturer Theory of Communication Faculty of International Journalism at MGIMO

Our most precious, irreplaceable resource is our time. For me personally, books are one of the wisest ways we can invest that time. A book is the direct transfer, mind to mind, of the thoughts of another human being. Today, we are assailed by a thousand distractions every hour, as various sources of information compete for our attention. Those of us who grew up in the pre-Internet era know the slow time experience of immersion in a powerful or moving book. And when we switch our attention to Facebook, or Reddit, or any of a million and one other potential distractions, we are losing our time to an insidious digital addiction.

The shallow accretions of Internet data doses are finely tuned to captivate our attention, titillating our minds with illusory promises of satisfaction which can never be fulfilled except by more of the same, in an endless cycle of meme, news flash and tawdry ‘human interest’ stories, optimized with click-bait headlines. What we gain in content, we lose in meaning.

We are also losing our privacy, our innocence and most importantly, we are losing the ability to think deeply about important subjects. As long as we embrace too-easy gratification, we will continue to remain in thrall to the digital domination of instant information. I am concerned that human beings are subjecting themselves to a new way to trigger neuro-chemical changes in our brains, that may ultimately lead to a decline in the quality of our human relationships.

I therefore advocate and support the message of entering slow time. Take a hike in nature. Disconnect from the constant digital flood. Interact with your friends. Share a meal together. Switch off from every external distraction, and embrace the flow of life beyond the digital fix. Your future may depend upon it.

Paul Gillingwater
Journalist & Filmmaker. Managing Editor at The Local Austria

I’m getting old, the twinkle in my stardust is fading like a birthday candle. I remember the time when a friend told me about a lecture he’d just attended, it was a time with no personal computers and no mobile phones – yes, such a time actually existed, I was born in that time. My friend told me that the lecturer had said “In the future, there will be two kinds of people, technocrats and technopeasants,” Well, here we are in the future (a future sadly bereft of hover scooters) and I guess that prophetic lecturer was right. I had chosen to be on the side of the technopeasants because I figured that the world of theatre, “to which I am shackled like a boozer to his bottle, a dogged gambler to his game…” would not be impinged upon by the technological revolution. Well, I was wrong and the reason I was wrong is because the technological revolution has gotten rid of the actor and replaced him with an uber-marionette of cosmic proportions – it has changed the mind of man – it may be that we are no longer able to “hold a mirror up to nature” as creative artists but that the quantum and intra worlds of meta-linguistics are actually dragging us by the ego into the whirlpool of narcissism, where we are being devoured by vicious metal sharks and turned into bloody chum – until that is the human voices of digital detox wake us, “and we drown.”

Martin Cooke
Artistic Director, English Actors International

The “Digital Vocabulary” is a unique project. Nowadays, a great many write about technology’s impact on mankind (I’ve read almost everything of that, therefore my judgement can be called authoritative), but only Alex and Dmitry could comprehend, make it loud and simple, show it from an unexpected point of view, bring in their own insights and create a fabulous in its depth analytical portal, which considers all the aspects of the homo digitalis life. It is remarkable that both voluntarily Internet-addicted and committed techno luddites and media ascetics would find a lot of exciting things. Highly recommended to all fans of pushing the boundaries of reality: “Digital Vocabulary” provides a detailed 3D-model of the digital world and tools to its contemplation.

Irina Gusinskaya
Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Head of Interactive Publishing at Alpina Publisher
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