The Algorithmic Mind

By Péter Bajomi-Lázár, Budapest Business School.

Suppose your father gave you an Agatha Christie crime novel when you were young, and suppose you liked it. You read it in a day, and what you did next was, of course, you went to the bookshelf yourself, you picked another Christie novel, and you read it, too. When your household library was running out of the stories of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, you went to the local bookstore to buy more of the same. This is how we all are. We do things that we enjoy. Our interests, our preferences are part of our identity.

Whenever experts speak of the new, digital, social media platforms, one of the first things they express concerns about is the algorithmic nature thereof. Facebook and Instagram, they will say, deliver you content similar to what you have liked before. This is how their algorithms, based on artificial intelligence, work. But they are bad for you, they will add, because the use of algorithms will encage you in “filter bubbles” or “echo chambers,” offering you the same menu every day, rather than providing you with an à la carte choice.

Digital media experts may add that algorithms are one of the most distinctive features of social media platforms as opposed to legacy media such as newspapers, cinema, radio and television. But is this really the case? Highly unlikely. In open societies, media are private ventures. Whether or not supply meets demand is a question of life or death for media investors: should they fail to provide the public with what they want, they would immediately go bankrupt. Newspapers, film production companies, radio stations, and television channels are motivated by profit, and they are driven by competition. And they have a very precise idea of what content is popular with the audiences. They keep a close eye on audience figures all the time, and provide the public with exactly what the people want to read, hear, and see. Algorithms have always been an inherent part of the logic of media markets.

In fact, algorithms are an inherent part of non-artificial intelligence, too; this is why you would go to the bookstore to get hold of the next Agatha Christie book. They are the very motivation behind our daily choices of content. The reason why media have always been following the algorithmic logic is because they want to serve people, in search of well-earned profit.

Do not blame them for giving you what you have always wanted.

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