You are a walking billboard insofar as the almighty algorithm is concerned. The breadcrumbs of your life that you leave as you traverse the internet, the WorldWideWeb, and the Metaverse constitute your scent. From these the algorithmic “hounds” detect your presence. This makes you both unique and not – another star in the sky among many. The various actors who track your goings on are modeling you as an entity in service to their own policies and business rules. These can be formal or informal.
For review, an algorithm, which underlies the gist of our ability for machines to consistently act on our behalf, constitutes the step-by-step procedure to produce reliable results. When learning routines are introduced, the algorithm can correct assumptions in its model. It can still produce meaningfully reliable results within some acceptable tolerance level. The airliner’s autopilot has some slack in its process-control routes in order to produce acceptable levels of positive control of the aircraft’s configuration.
The degree to which artificial intelligences can behave as goal-seeking agents is the degree to which a stable state can be achieved within acceptable tolerances.
In all cases, those who track you and your behaviors as you traverse digital spaces, or even physical spaces, have each modeled you. They treat you as an entity that factors, critically and essentially, into the business rules and policies that govern the successful realization of their goals. To treat you as a modeled entity recalls the following maxim regarding models:
All models are wrong, some models are useful– George E. P. Box
This presents an occasion to delve into the philosophique. The algorithm models developed to normalize and standardize your online behaviors are, at best, abstractions. What is hoped for is that the modeler has captured your essential properties that are salient to their ends-means proposition.
The essential properties of you, as on object of interest, is a property that you must possess several key things. (1) You must be connected to the internet; (2) you have some account that has made this possible; (3) you take observable actions; (4) and you share information (most of which is directly or indirectly identifiable) as you behave and transact “online.” What you do, see, find, and look for are all indicators. These are necessary and essential properties.
The critically key assumption of these models is that among the basic modal characterizations of you is that you are a human actor. You are connected to the assumed characteristics and traits of a human actor. It is assumed, essentially so, that you behave socially and economically. These ways can be both measured, monitored, and influenced.
However, models are strengthened in the encounter and sense-making attached to your accidental properties. The “accidents” about you are properties that you could or happen to have, but that you could also lack.
All of these factor into drifts in how we calibrate the operative and generative metaphors used to sustain what philosophy calls our epistemology. We too use the concepts of essences and accidents in our sense-making that suggests how we value knowledge. It also examines how we value antecedents, and the value system by which we evaluate veracity and validity.
Genie In The Bottle
The “genie” of our participation in a digital world is unarguably “out of the bottle” in the same manner that the harness of electricity has been. The challenge of our time will be how sense-making is conflated, confounded, and constituted.
This will be by the intermingling of human and non-human agents where each are capable of mutual shaping and influence. This is not presented as a pretext for a dystopian apocalypse that is the common fodder of a science fiction plotline. Still, co-evolution with machines designed to serve human interests is waxing.
In all we consume in the digital realm, essences and accidents are being rediscovered and redefined in a multi-lateral manner between human actors, machine agents, and the human actors. These entities set and reset the assumptions of the algorithms and models that inform that machine agents.
Arguments in favor of whether this arrangement has opened more doors than ever are bountiful. Counter arguments suggesting the dangers in human to machine agent discourse are also prevalent. There is an imperative to bear in mind as a modeled entity. As you consume the benefit and bounty of machine agents, they too are consuming you (or your modeled you). Furthermore, they are benefiting from this.
The symbiosis between humans and machines may not be fully understood, and perhaps never will be. But the epistemic opportunities and challenges are changing and require awareness. A reasonable rule of thumb is to “follow the money.” Also, we must adopt a cui bono posture and to remain vigilant for “fools gold.”
In this regard, we have Charles Dickens as a guide: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The disruptions of diffusing innovations will likely always presage such analysis.
Dr. Jeffry Babb
Professor of Computer Information Systems & Stan Sigman Professor of Business