Algorithms are shaping how we see the world around us, with big consequences. What a machine thinks we need to know can become what we fear.
On February 8, 2012, I was on Yahoo's homepage when a headline caught my eye: "Mo. teen gets life with possible parole in killing." Curious, I clicked to see what atrocity had transpired in the state where I live. Alyssa Bustamante, a teenager from Jefferson City, had strangled and stabbed her nine-year-old neighbor for the sheer thrill of it, later describing the event in her diary as an "ahmazing" experience. Horrified, I closed the page. Like many whose homepage defaults to Yahoo, this quick scan of a story was a rote action, information via procrastination, almost subconsciously performed every morning before I move on to other things. In this case, the story was so awful that I wanted to get away. Except, it turned out, I couldn't.
For the next month, I woke up to a barrage of horrifying stories that seemed to signal an epidemic of child torture in America. "3-year-old recovering after swallowing 37 powerful magnets," Yahoo solemnly informed me on March 5; "Police: Alaska girl locked in frigid bedroom dies" on March 6. Occasionally the child in question survived their ordeal ("7-year-old boy survives brush with tornado in North Carolina", March 4) but more often than not they were the adversary ("Boy, 9, charged in shooting of third-grade classmate", February 23; "11-year-old California girl dies after fight with classmate", February 26; "Texas boy, 12, accused of brandishing loaded gun", February 27; "10-year-old girl's death in fight with student ruled homicide", February 27).