Technology and Information in the Western World

At the start of the 21st Century it was obvious that information (data, communications, news) was valuable as it had not been before. The ability to collect, utilize, and disseminate information reaped efficiencies and knowledge from the multitudinous amalgamation of modern society. Sifting and organizing this data became the paramount task for business and government, and the sifting is done with algorithms. Algorithms dominate modern life in subtle and pervasive ways and they are often placed on a pedestal: the better the algorithm the better your software. With all of this data and all of this organization of data, there is a loss of focus on the issues data is actually used to resolve. There is a dark side to the task of intertwining society and reducing every tendency and action to a data point – and it’s not Big Brother sifting through your personal life that is a problem.

People are the problem. Technology does not exist in a vacuum and it exists to aid people. Technology does not make all decisions for us. The proliferation of data has led to a problem that algorithms cannot solve. People must interpret and use the data, and if there is so much information available to the public, it is up to people to filter it themselves and decide what is important to listen to. There is also the problem of trying to force people to be better at reaching certain data points. For instance, children shouldn’t get a higher grade on an English exam, they should be better at analyzing and writing in the language. Likewise, people shouldn’t just read more information, they should be analyzing the available information more efficiently.

A narrative after the presidential election centers around the dissemination of fake news and its possible impact on the outcome. Much of the blame has centered on Facebook and social media for allowing the spread of fake news, but this criticism is misplaced. People must take some responsibility before we force technology to make decisions for us. The centrality of data and algorithms, information culture in its entirety, must be maintained as an AIDE and not as a LEADER.   Our reliance on technology cannot extend to giving up agency. If people cannot decide between believing fake news sources or not, and we need an algorithm to decide for us, then people are abdicating their right to self-government to mathematical constructs.

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