Skip to main content

What Algorithms Want - Ed Finn ****

The science fiction author Neal Stephenson comments on the cover of this book that it is 'highly enjoyable'. I suspect this is because in the opening of the book, Ed Finn repeatedly refers to Stephenson's impressive novel Snow Crash. If Stephenson actually found reading What Algorithms Want to be fun, he needs to get out more. I would, instead, describe it is extremely hard work to read - but it is hard work that is rewarded with some impressive insights. What Algorithms Want is both clever and able to cut away the glamour (in the old sense of the word) of the internet and the cyber world to reveal what's really going on beneath - as long as you can cope with the way that the book is written.

A Finn points out, most of us rely on algorithms, from Google’s search to Facebook’s timeline, not consciously considering that these aren’t just tools to help us, but processes that have their own (or their makers) intentions embodied in them. What’s more, there's really important material here about the insidious way the cyber world is driving us towards processes where the effort is not not concerned with a final product so much as the continuation of the system. However, there is also a fair amount of pretentious content that can be reminiscent of Sokal’s famous hoax - all too often, the sources Finn quotes seem to be using words from the IT world without entirely understanding them.

In terms of readability, What Algorithms Want suffers from same problem as the output of many of the university students I help with writing - ask them what their essay means and what they say is much clearer that what they've written. Finn is overly fond, for instance, of ‘fungible’ and ‘imbricate’, which are not words I'd really like to see outside of specialist publications.

Some of the specifics don't quite ring true. Finn talks about a modern equivalent of Asimov's fictional psychohistory, without covering the way that chaos theory makes it clear that an algorithmic representation of such a complex system could never produce useful predictions (any more than we can ever forecast the weather more than a few days into the future). Sometimes, Finn seems to be complaining about something that isn't a match to reality. So, for instance, he says 'you listen to a streaming music station that almost gets it right, telling yourself that these songs, not quite the right ones, are perfect for this moment because a magic algorithm selected them.' He absolutely misses the point. You don't do it because you think a magic algorithm produces perfection. You do it because you haven't time to spend an hour assembling the perfect playlist for the moment. It's a convenient compromise - and a far better match than listening to a random playlist off the radio.



This reflects a tendency to read too much into an example. For example, despite admitting that Netflix gave the makers of the series House of Cards carte blanche on content, Finn still identifies algorithmic aspects to the script. This comes out particularly when he comments at length on Fincher's idea of having Underwood address the audience direct, apparently not aware that this was one of the standout features of the (very non-algorithmic) original BBC series. Elsewhere, when talking about Uber, Finn says 'The company's opacity about pricing and the percentage of revenue shared with drivers makes it even more Iike an arbitrary video game' - but what conventional business does share this kind of information with its customers? Do you know the markup on products in your corner store, or what a McDonald's franchisee earns?

However, don't let these detailed complaints put you off. There is a huge amount to appreciate here, especially when Finn gets onto individual aspects of the impact of algorithms on our lives in the likes of Siri, Google and Netflix. And throughout there is much to challenge the reader, encouraging thought about technology we tend to take for granted. I just wish that it could have been written in a less obscure fashion.

Hardback:  

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…