Skip to main content

What Algorithms Want - Ed Finn ****

The science fiction author Neal Stephenson comments on the cover of this book that it is 'highly enjoyable'. I suspect this is because in the opening of the book, Ed Finn repeatedly refers to Stephenson's impressive novel Snow Crash. If Stephenson actually found reading What Algorithms Want to be fun, he needs to get out more. I would, instead, describe it is extremely hard work to read - but it is hard work that is rewarded with some impressive insights. What Algorithms Want is both clever and able to cut away the glamour (in the old sense of the word) of the internet and the cyber world to reveal what's really going on beneath - as long as you can cope with the way that the book is written.

A Finn points out, most of us rely on algorithms, from Google’s search to Facebook’s timeline, not consciously considering that these aren’t just tools to help us, but processes that have their own (or their makers) intentions embodied in them. What’s more, there's really important material here about the insidious way the cyber world is driving us towards processes where the effort is not not concerned with a final product so much as the continuation of the system. However, there is also a fair amount of pretentious content that can be reminiscent of Sokal’s famous hoax - all too often, the sources Finn quotes seem to be using words from the IT world without entirely understanding them.

In terms of readability, What Algorithms Want suffers from same problem as the output of many of the university students I help with writing - ask them what their essay means and what they say is much clearer that what they've written. Finn is overly fond, for instance, of ‘fungible’ and ‘imbricate’, which are not words I'd really like to see outside of specialist publications.

Some of the specifics don't quite ring true. Finn talks about a modern equivalent of Asimov's fictional psychohistory, without covering the way that chaos theory makes it clear that an algorithmic representation of such a complex system could never produce useful predictions (any more than we can ever forecast the weather more than a few days into the future). Sometimes, Finn seems to be complaining about something that isn't a match to reality. So, for instance, he says 'you listen to a streaming music station that almost gets it right, telling yourself that these songs, not quite the right ones, are perfect for this moment because a magic algorithm selected them.' He absolutely misses the point. You don't do it because you think a magic algorithm produces perfection. You do it because you haven't time to spend an hour assembling the perfect playlist for the moment. It's a convenient compromise - and a far better match than listening to a random playlist off the radio.



This reflects a tendency to read too much into an example. For example, despite admitting that Netflix gave the makers of the series House of Cards carte blanche on content, Finn still identifies algorithmic aspects to the script. This comes out particularly when he comments at length on Fincher's idea of having Underwood address the audience direct, apparently not aware that this was one of the standout features of the (very non-algorithmic) original BBC series. Elsewhere, when talking about Uber, Finn says 'The company's opacity about pricing and the percentage of revenue shared with drivers makes it even more Iike an arbitrary video game' - but what conventional business does share this kind of information with its customers? Do you know the markup on products in your corner store, or what a McDonald's franchisee earns?

However, don't let these detailed complaints put you off. There is a huge amount to appreciate here, especially when Finn gets onto individual aspects of the impact of algorithms on our lives in the likes of Siri, Google and Netflix. And throughout there is much to challenge the reader, encouraging thought about technology we tend to take for granted. I just wish that it could have been written in a less obscure fashion.

Hardback:  

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

On the Moor - Richard Carter ****

There's much to enjoy in Richard Carter's pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England's Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it's inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants - I confess I was ignorant of the peregrine falcon's 200 mile per hour dive - or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

Carter is something of an expert on Darwin, and inevitably the great man comes into the story many times - yet his appearance never seems forced. It's hard to spend your time in a natural environment like this and not have Darwin repeatedly brought to mind.

I confess to a distinct love of these moors. Having spent my first 11 years in and around Littleborough, just the other side of Blackstone Edge from Carter's moor, the moorland…