Do not question the algorithm

Uber, the creepy[1] ride service company, wants us to just accept “The Algorithm.”

During a recent hostage situation in Sydney, Uber increased its rates according to a “surge pricing” algorithm. When the inevitable backlash occurred, the company attempted to excuse itself by claiming that the price changes are algorithmic and that the company wasn’t engaging in a deliberate attempt to take advantage of a crisis. The former, of course, is a ridiculous claim because (to paraphrase Dr. Paul Batalden): “Every algorithm is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”[2] If the algorithm fails to account for crisis situations, its designers either failed to consider that crises might occur, or they did consider it but are hiding behind “The Algorithm.”

The real problem here is both insidious and pervasive in our internet-solutionist culture. Internet companies like Uber, Google, and Facebook expect us to accept that their unseen algorithms are inherently fair and just. Their pleas that we should learn to love their algorithms are attempts to endow them with properties they simply do not have. Algorithms are not naturally-occurring phenomena whose properties and behaviors are waiting to be discovered and accepted. They are designed by companies in an effort to advance their own interests.

Reminds me of Evegeny Morozov’s thesis in “To Save Everything Click Here”.

  1. Why “creepy”? As The Telegraph points out, it’s not the NSA spying you need to worry about. It’s companies like Uber whose executives threaten journalists who dare to write a critical article.

  2. The original quote was: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”