The warnings aren’t misplaced. As more and more of our social, cultural, and political lives are filtered through software services run by big tech companies, it’s important for citizens to understand how those services construct information rather than just displaying it.
But when the media writes about “changes” and “tweaks” to “algorithms,” it does a disservice to its own message. As I argued last year, talking about big, complex companies and their services as mere “algorithms” amounts to a theological position. It fashions a cathedral of computation at whose altar Internet users supplicate. In that piece, I suggested replacing the term “algorithm” with “God” when you read it in the press. Facebook could tweak its God to stymie a Donald Trump presidency! Merely mentioning the vaunted “algorithm” raises its station, fetishizes it, treats it as a totem.
The word sounds smart and efficient—both in computers and in writing about them. In computer science, “algorithms” are self-contained, well-defined methods for carrying out processes. There are sorting algorithms and routing algorithms and encryption algorithms. In their traditional sense, algorithms described solved problems whose methods are well-known and specifically defined.
But that’s precisely the opposite of the software that runs Facebook’s news feed or Google’s search results. It’s why Oremus calls the former a “closely guarded and constantly shifting formula.” Facebook and Google and their ilk aren’t gods, nor are they even really just software. They are businesses, made out of lots of things—people and clients, office locations and Wall Street analyst expectations, and yes, software and hardware as well. But perhaps most of all, they are bureaucracies, complex organizations with many thousands of stakeholders, all pushing and pulling against one another. This isn’t heavenly effort, but just ordinary terrestrial work. Even Facebook itself doesn’t deploy this rhetoric. They call the supposed algorithm tweaks “updates.”
To tame the beast that is Facebook, first let’s stop talking about it as if it were wild. If the media and the public really are concerned about the increasingly mysterious and influential role companies like Google and Facebook play in contemporary life, one small but substantial step they can take is to bring them back down to earth. To stop elevating those services to the divine rank of gods or the elegant simplicity of algorithms. Nothing mysterious or holy is really taking place when Facebook updates its service—even if those updates still might have important implications for ordinary life.
Facebook’s “algorithm tweaks” should not be viewed as decrees from an omnipotent software-god. Instead, let’s evaluate and discuss them the same as any change to a company’s product or service offerings: as opportunities to evaluate their value, cost, and appeal, and to debate whether and how to use those services in the future. True, it’s hard to quit Facebook and Google—maybe impossible, even. But that doesn’t make them supreme beings. Facebook is a worldly corporation. It offers an information discovery service. Sometimes it makes changes to the way it offers that service.