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.

“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