Sometimes there’s a little crack in the web that is just big enough to catch a glimpse of who the robots running the show think you are.
You might deduce, for example, that the tracking software that watches you browse has figured out you’re shopping for a Halloween costume. Lo and behold, ads for gorilla suits and fairy wings start popping up in the margins of every other website you visit. Or maybe you just rewatched a bunch of Twilight Zone episodes on Netflix. It makes sense that the site then recommends Black Mirror and Quantum Leap.
But much of the time, there’s no way to tell why information is filtered the way it is online. Why is one person’s status update on Facebook prioritized in your News Feed over another’s? Why does Google return a different order of search results for you than for the person sitting next to you, googling the same thing?
These are the mysteries of the algorithms that rule the web. And the weird thing is, they aren’t just inscrutable to the people clicking and scrolling around the Internet. Even the engineers who develop algorithms can’t tell you exactly how they work.
And it’s going to get more convoluted before it gets clearer. In fact, for a few reasons, it probably won't get clearer ever. First of all, there’s virtually no regulation of data-collection in the United States, meaning companies can create detailed profiles of individuals based on huge troves of personal data—without those individuals knowing what’s being collected or how that information is being used. “This is getting worse,” said Andrew Moore, the dean of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.