The Tyranny of Life Under Algorithms: A Short Meditation

By Teresa Heffernan

Alan Turing–the force behind theoretical computer science, artificial intelligence, and the Universal Turing Machine–was instrumental in cracking intercepted coded messages, which enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis. He was charged with “gross indecency” in 1952 and punished for homosexuality. He submitted to chemical castration in lieu of prison.

Just before his 42nd birthday, two years after the charge, he committed suicide though some speculate his death was an accident. In the final section of Will Eaves’s brilliant novel Murmur, about a character based on Alan Turing, Alec Pryor faces a dream-like trial where he appears before “The Council of Machines”:

“I was left to imagine what sort of extraordinary mental realm it was they inhabited in which pain and lies and deceptions were still said to offend, but offended as depressing inexactitudes rather than injustices, and I realized that I did not have to imagine very hard, because I had inhabited something very similar for most of my life, had treated a number of people as a series of unsatisfactory propositions, and had understood therefore—with a shudder—the propensity in German Fascism to treat whole nations and races in like manner, and had fought against it accordingly. And then, of course, I ended up being treated that way myself.”

Under the regime of machine logic “inexactitudes” displace injustice, pain, and lies. Humans, nations and races are reduced to “unsatisfactory propositions.” Too late, Alec comes to realize that although he fought against the Nazis, the council of machines, that he has helped install, shares the same logic. Just as he is marked as a homosexual for loving despite dominant heteronormative codes, under the tyranny of algorithms and statistical averages, there is similarly no room for figures that don’t fit.

There is no coming Singularity, no roadmap to Artificial General Intelligence—AI is math not magic. Don’t’ be distracted by the massive propaganda machine of Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter and the billionaires that own them, who are selling this version of the future. It is snake oil. These Silicon Valley titans care far more about their stock prices and expanding their control than they do about justice, fairness, democracy, science or truth. Conspiracy theories of the most violent sort spread like wildfire on these platforms. Their algorithms automate and accelerate historical injustice. The data they steal from you is used to turn you into a statistic with no recourse to appeal. If you don’t fit the model, you are tossed out of the system. This is what Pryor portends as he stands before the Council of Machines in his “forward-thinking hallucination”: fascism on steroids.

  • Mel Clondike

    Given how bad AI misreads online security threats, it is neither threat nor solution but typical space cadet masturbation and reason to abandon social media in favor of usenet newsgroups.

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