When algorithms make the choices for us (replay)

This episode originally aired on February 18.

When you’re looking for new music, it’s easy to let a streaming service’s algorithm recommend songs that are similar to the music you already love.

The kinds of algorithms that shape our “digital lives” are at the center of “The Loop: How Technology Creates a Choiceless World and How to Fight Back” a book by NBC News tech correspondent Jacob Ward.

He spoke with Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams about how a lot of behavioral science helps algorithms hack into our brains. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jacob district: The technology that companies use to figure out what might interest you and me is really just a pattern recognition system. And if behavioral science has taught us anything, it’s that those instinctive decisions we make tend to fall into patterns. You know, there’s a kind of higher, smarter human consciousness that I think we’re all very proud of, but it turns out that corporations aren’t interested in selling to that consciousness. They would much rather sell to the old predictable systems that we are not even aware of.

Kimberly Adams: One of the examples that struck me was this idea that we somehow use our life influences and experience to shape our musical tastes, and now an algorithm does that for us.

Hall: It was really one of the big shocks for me. I mean, I was the kind of person who mixed for people, and I could tell you anything about this or that band. These days when someone asks me, “Oh, what are you listening to these days?” I just say, “You know, I have no idea,” that Spotify’s recommendation algorithm has me in its grip. That’s one of the lessons of the loop is that it’s not just that this technology comes in for our critical faculties. It’s really, really effective and, I’m afraid, the long term effects of it will outweigh the short term conveniences.

Adam: Well, how do you push it back or settle around it? Because we live in a capitalist society and people will throw money at things that make money. So how do you change this paradigm?

Hall: I think we need to, as a society, come to grips with what I think is the biggest question of our time, which is: what’s the difference between being addicted to something that’s good for you and addicted to something who is bad for you? Well, let’s take an addictive use of technology. Right now you have companies using extremely specific targeting metrics to find the people most responsive to things like online casino experience simulators. So I think if we can get to a more transparent place where companies that play with our unconscious impulses have to share some of the ways they do marketing and analytics and prediction, well, I think we could get to a place where we can see a pathway to regulation as more than the kind of wild, open, wild West environment we’ve operated in so far.

Sharon D. Cole