Algocracy. Living free in the age of algorithms

Algocracy. Vivre libre à l'heure des algorithmes, by Arthur Grimonpont. Foreword by Jean-Marc Jancovici - Editions Actes sud, October 12, 2022 - 288 pages

"The history of mankind looks more and more like a race between education and catastrophe", remarked the British writer H. G. Wells in 1920. A century later, humanity has never reached such a level of interconnection. Never have we had so much free time at our disposal. Never has information irrigated our brains in such volumes. These conditions could have enabled us to reach a peak in our ability to inform, educate and cooperate to solve all kinds of collective challenges. Instead, we are witnessing a rapid deterioration in our mental health, the spread of misinformation and the political fragmentation of our societies. And we continue our frantic race towards the ecological wall. What went wrong?

Part of the explanation lies in capital's stranglehold on the main flows of information. As early as 1845, Marx wrote: "In every age, the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas [...] The class which has the means of material production has at the same time, as a result, the means of intellectual production, so that, in general, it exercises its power over the ideas of those who lack these means".
In most countries of the world, a small number of billionaires and sprawling corporations own the majority of the media (press, radio, TV) - when these are not in the hands of a totalitarian state.
Since material accumulation is linked to the over-exploitation of resources, media concentration is as much a barrier to ecology as it is to the sharing of wealth. We can't expect those who have a vested interest in nothing changing to set change in motion.

The filter of traditional media (press, radio, TV) is now superimposed on the filter of social networks, which have become the primary means of accessing information. Four and a half billion people spend more than seven hours a day on the Internet. They work, socialize, study, shop and play. The virtuality of our lives surpasses what even the most extravagant science-fiction scenarios of the 20th century could have anticipated. This time spent on the Internet is not the simple counterpart of the services it provides. The extractivist economy unfolds in the virtual world with the same greed as in the real world, and it's with renewed appetite that technology companies exploit a new kind of resource: our attention span. Social networks, the main belligerents in the war for attention, have put in place the means to achieve their ambitions: build a gigantic audience, capture its attention and convert it into advertising revenue. What are their resources? An uncommon ability to understand, target and influence our behavior, thanks to recommendation algorithms. Social networks have become the Web's number one use. We spend an average of sixty days a year scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, chaining videos together on YouTube or scrolling through miniclips on TikTok. While at school, students spend more time on social networks than in class or chatting with friends and family. 120,000 years of videos are viewed daily on YouTube; three quarters of these are the result of recommendations.

Recommendation algorithms prioritize the information we access - or don't access. They build and update our representations of the world. Our "freedom of opinion" is exercised within the very limited framework of news feeds whose sole aim is to hold us captive. This machine for extracting attention finds the mainspring of its effectiveness in its propensity to arouse our addiction by stimulating our instantaneous impulses. Impulses unleash passions; passions eclipse reason; conspiracy theories call into question the most established scientific knowledge. On Twitter, fake news spreads six times faster than authentic information. Our foundation of shared values is crumbling as we lock ourselves into information bubbles, and constant distraction diverts our attention from collective priorities. Noam Chomsky, echoing the findings of scientists at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from the University of Chicago, lists three existential threats to humanity. To the traditional risks of nuclear conflict and ecological catastrophe, he adds "a corrupted information landscape preventing rational decision-making".
How can we hope to solve collective challenges such as climate change if the information landscape divides society over their causes, or even calls into question their very existence? In such an information landscape, we have the same chance of providing an intelligent response to the ecological challenge as we do of arriving at port with a drunken crew on a stormy night without a navigation chart.

No technological determinism condemns us to the worst. Regulating social networks is not only possible, it's imperative - Europe and the United States are working on it. We must outlaw the advertising model and the logic of attention extraction, which we know to be incompatible with our moral values, our mental health and the quality of information. Let's see social platforms for what they have become: the greatest meeting places for people and ideas. At a time when a billionaire alone can decide the fate of a social network or censor a political representative, we must regain democratic control of our digital public spaces. Let's put social platforms and their recommendation algorithms at the service of the common good.

Let's imagine that instead of being the products, we become players in the attention economy. Let's imagine that, instead of propelling outrageous and decadent content, the power of YouTube's recommendation algorithms were put at the service of culture and education. Let's imagine that instead of passively enduring a flood of biased news in our information bubble, Facebook invites us to assess the quality and interest of each piece of content and recommend it beyond our own circles. Imagine if, instead of increasing the audience for sterile quarrels, Twitter gave preference to informed, nuanced debate. Building an information democracy is a vital necessity and the key to tremendous human progress.

Arthur Grimonpont is an engineer, researcher and consultant specializing in transition issues in the face of ecological crises. He co-founded the association Les Greniers d'abondance. His interest in social networks and their "attention economy" stems from a questioning of the conditions of possibility for an ecological revolution.

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