Unicycles and algorithms

Algorithms, and their prosaic manifestation as video games, computer software and apps, shape the way we think and create. To some extent they open up creative possibilities. For instance, they enable me to develop and adjust my RAW digital photos: this is certainly an improvement for me, since I do not have the space for a dark room, nor the money to purchase endless reels of film. But it also limits my creativity to the parameters and increments envisaged by programmers: whilst the analog world (i.e. the real physical world) allows creativity and imagination to occur between pixels and beyond 256 shades of grey, my RAW processor only allows me to create and imagine by nudging pixels around and by altering them in predetermined increments.

Algorithms constrain and shape our everyday lives too. A good and rather clunky example is McGill University’s new personnel management system. This system fails to envisage certain common practices (such as paying employees from multiple funds; such as making certain types of ad-hoc payments). These practices, permissible under university and accounting rules, have not been foreseen by the idiot algorithms. These algorithms march us towards behaviour governed by simple hierarchies and classifications as envisaged by programmers, who are either ignorant of real-life administrative procedures or have been instructed to modify these procedures by the back door.

A slow algorithm. Photo: Pablo Barrera, Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/24738383@N07/2339191577

The University’s administration now tells us: ‘This can’t be done because the program won’t allow it’. This is an easier, and rather passive-aggressive, way of disciplining university staff than telling them that administrators have chosen to tighten procedures because they want to centralize and control, because it’s the late capitalist zeitgeist. The poorest excuse I have heard about implementing this lamentable software – and doing so in the midst of a pandemic, no less – is that ‘other universities are implementing it’. Our finest institutions, bastions of independent thought and original ideas, following others and/or allowing Silicon Valley geeks to tell us how to run the place ??? Surely not!

This illustrates a wider point, made for example by Philip Mirowski in Machine Dreams. He argues that economics, far from describing human behaviour, sets the norms that humans are expected to adhere to. Homo-economicus (the rational game-playing and profit-maximising person that purportedly lurks within us, driving all decisions from choosing chocolate bars to selecting life companions – read Gary Becker if you doubt this!) does not reflect innate human behaviour: rather, it reflects the norms expected of people in capitalist and industrial societies, norms now internalised by most of us.

Wages are a good illustration of this: in the early to mid nineteenth century, some factories faced a problem. Workers – typically farm labourers who had migrated towards cities – tended to stop working when they had earned enough to feed, house and clothe themselves. Who needs more? Homo-economicus would…. but could their features not be innate? Certain hunter-gatherer societies – those living in sufficiently lush and clement regions, for whom a few hours foraging per day suffice – also do not appear to behave as classical economics posits.

This is compelling evidence (marshalled and systematised by Karl Polanyi, for instance) that profit maximisation is not an innate human trait. Early factories needed to lower wages in order for workers to work more (lowering wages means that more hours work are required to earn ‘enough’ – great for factory owners). The Potlatch, a ceremony of affluence and sharing amongst Pacific coast first nations, was banned in Canada because it did not correspond to its Victorian work-ethic, itself a creature of laissez-faire economics and industrialisation.

Classical economic thinking has successfully made people, politicians and businesses believe that homo-economicus enshrines innate aspects of human nature…. (or could it be that classical economists developed their ‘science’ as a justification for industrialism and capitalism?). Anyway, in the 21st century, as trading algorithms are programmed to ape rational economic behaviour, ‘evidence’ that markets behave according to profit-maximising and game-playing nostrums abounds. This is not surprising, since the evidence is tautological: if a system’s components (human or algorithmic) are programmed to mimic behaviour ‘A’, then it should come as no surprise that the system’s output corroborates the existence of behaviour ‘A’!

What point am I making? The point is that, however enjoyable it is for me to roam ‘free’ in the digital sand-boxes of video games (see previous post), administrative software, photo editing or statistical software, these freedoms are tightly framed. The video-gaming skills I acquire, the administrative decisions I am responsible for, the photos I develop and the analyses I run are those envisaged and permitted by algorithms. Any roaming I perform in my digital vehicles is within the confines of the program: although a salutary feature of Forza Horizon is that animals cannot be run down, I would prefer this to be a moral choice and not an algorithmic imposition. Of course, many games and other software allow for certain moral choices – but they are always and inevitably circumscribed and directed by hidden algorithms, not by free moral choice.

This is where cycling – for all its slowness and effort – is a far more intense (but sometimes less fun) experience than digital gaming. I cycle in an analog world, where real alertness is necessary and where there are real consequences to misjudging a corner. Real dogs give chase, real coyotes lurk in the forests, and real cars overtake. Real nightime comes, and real darkness ensues. Real rain falls, and real sun beats down. Colours are vivid, and there are no pixels or resolution issues that limit exploration, sub-exploration, and sub-sub-exploration. I have no navigation device or cell phone – so I can really get lost, and may face some real challenges getting home if I can’t fix my bike on the fly. I tune my bike turning real screws and letting real air in and out of the tires. When I climb a hill, I suffer, I get exhausted and I sweat – my whole body and mind are engaged, not just my fingers, arms and eyes.

And since I know how to stay upright on a bike, but find it fun learning new skills, I am now attempting to master the unicycle. Real balance, real falls, and real frustration…. I (sort of) love it! And it sure ain’t programmed by idiots-savants in Silicon Valley!

It looks so easy! (Photo: Jeremy Noble, Creative Commons)

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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