It has been the magic word of Silicon Valley for a decade: algorithms. But what exactly is an algorithm? And why do we often hear it in a negative context? In this article we explain the algorithm completely to you.

## What is an Algorithm?

It seems as if the entire (digital) world revolves around one thing these days: algorithms. But what is that actually? In the simplest sense, an algorithm is no more than a step-by-step plan to achieve a goal. Your math problems are basically algorithms, but so is your grandmother’s delicious lasagna recipe. An algorithm is therefore not by definition a tech concept. Yet we often hear it in this context.

In the latest news about tech companies and social media, we hear this term all too often. Read on to find out why tech companies like Apple use a lot of algorithms.

## Why tech companies love algorithms

Algorithms are often mentioned in the same breath as large data sets. Everything you do on the internet is done through cookies and other software stores a mountain of digital information. This consists of all your Google searches, the videos you watch and which commercials have your interests. The big tech companies also store where you view this, what time you see something like this and how long you view a video or photo. This is commonly referred to as simply ‘data’.

Tech companies then use this inexhaustible mountain of information to automate certain processes. This automation step is in the hands of that company’s algorithm. In the digital world, this is mainly about tailoring ads to each person. That, in addition to selling devices and subscriptions, also contains the big money for tech companies.

This in itself is not a bad process at all. To go through all the mountains of data from all 8 billion people creating a personal advertisement profile is a job that no genius can or wants to undertake. That is why this is automated via algorithms. For example, we do not have a team of marketing specialists who have placed the above matching advertisement there especially for you. No, a computer does that automatically. We only specify that an advertisement should be displayed there.

## Why then do ‘algorithm’ get negative news?

Algorithms are therefore unavoidable on many of the platforms we use, especially if we want to organize large mountains of information. But that is where the pitfall of algorithms lies and is precisely the reason why this word is so often negative in the news. Due to the automation of this ‘micro-decision making’, sometimes important or harmful things are overlooked.

### Problem 1: Companies keep everything about you

The first problem is privacy. Your data is used for algorithms. And as you read above, this data consists of your entire online doings. By pressing certain buttons (terms and conditions) you give permission for tech companies to do this with your online presence. In return you can use a website for free.

Accepting this cookies happens so fast that most of humanity doesn’t realize what is being collected about them. But what harm can that do? We explain this by means of an example. There are data traders who calculate ‘credit scores’ with your data. This is a numerical system that indicates whether you can repay a loan. If you’ve ever gone into debt, in these datasets it could haunt you forever. Although these kinds of practices are illegal, the (Dutch) legislation is not up-to-date enough to counter all these new forms of data traders.

Data trading in itself is not a wrong process. It’s only the laziness with which we allow our data to be sold by these merchants that makes things difficult. There are always people who push the edge of the law and ethics. The fact that the government (and you yourself) has little or no insight into this often makes the business of data trading dubious.

### Problem 2: Automation Doesn’t Mean Error-Free

Speaking of the Dutch government; this one has faced the second big problem of algorithms in recent years; mistakes are made by letting an algorithm go free and removing human control. The now well-known ‘allowance affair’ is the prime example of how a digital algorithm can ruin the lives of thousands of people. Without going very deep into this topic (there are bookcases full of books on this complex subject), we can explain it very briefly:

Due to the automation of data, names have wrongly been put on a ‘blacklist’ around all kinds of government benefits. Because there was no longer any human control between them, these people were unjustly deeply indebted by a computer and therefore by an algorithm.

Okay, this cost is perhaps a bit too big an ethical and philosophical issue for this article, but it does paint a good picture of how algorithms can have major consequences. In addition, there is something like the code bias. This means that everyone is biased in some way. So are the authors of the code behind an algorithm. This can have enormous consequences and even lead to racism and discrimination. The movie Coded Bias (to be seen on Netflix) captures this complex ethical issue very well.

## The algorithm behind your favorite social media apps

Your favorite apps on your iPhone also use algorithms. Whether it’s TikTok, Instagram or the innocent-looking Netflix and Spotify, all the apps on your phone automate their content. This gives you the content you want to see and these companies do not have to hire millions of employees to show you these videos and songs. However, behind this inventive management there is of course also a dark side.

### Problem 1 with social media algorithms: polarization

The algorithm behind TikTok or Instagram can have major consequences for the user experience and the well-being of users. One of the biggest dangers of the algorithm behind TikTok and Instagram is that it can lead to a “filtered reality” (filtered reality).

Because the algorithm is designed to recommend videos and photos that are relevant to the user and capture attention, it can lead to a situation where users only see content that matches their interests and preferences. This can lead to a distorted view of reality and a lack of exposure to diverse opinions and perspectives.

In reality, we have already seen many examples of this. Russia, for example, interfered with the online polarization via these ‘social media islands’ elections of the United States and Twitter today is far from a safe place for thoughtful discussion.

### Problem 2 with social media algorithms: privacy

The algorithm can also lead to a lack of privacy. Because the algorithm is designed to track users and learn about their interests and preferences, it can lead to a situation where users are overwhelmed by targeted ads. This can lead to a feeling of discomfort due to lack of privacy for users. You have probably already experienced it yourself; you talk (or think) about a certain product all day long, and then see it appear on your Instagram timeline.

### Problem 3 with social media algorithms: addiction

One of the most important changes that you probably notice yourself around the super-well-working algorithm of Instagram and TikTok is: addiction. There is an increase in the amount of time users spend on these platforms. Because the algorithm is designed to recommend videos and photos that are relevant to you and hold attention, it can lead to a situation where you linger longer and longer on TikTok and Instagram. Of course this doesn’t have to be the case with you, but it can’t be wrong for some addictive users to experience these endless feed to limit cat videos as well.

## Conclusion: Algorithms are okay, but there are limits

Algorithms are therefore harmless in principle and can even be useful in many situations. One of the main advantages of algorithms is that they can make fast and accurate decisions. Because they are designed to automate specific tasks and recognize patterns in large amounts of data.

Although algorithms are essentially harmless, there are always downsides that must be taken into account. It is therefore important that you are aware of all the consequences of using algorithms and that the government takes the right measures to protect us against the negative consequences. What do you think of this automation of the world?

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