Algorithmic ranking: the limits and meaning of user control

In a long post titled ‘You and the Algorithm: It Takes Two to Tango”, Nick Clegg laid out this week his vision for the future of algorithmic ranking. Similar to how algorithms constitute the ‘recipe’ for what we see every day in our Feeds- Clegg argues people have to know what goes into the recipe and be able to exercise control.

The framing of ‘user control’ in the context of feed ranking is worth unpacking.

A few patterns are pointing to the limited benefit — for both people and society — of full user control.

Second, there is the inherently complex nature of modern technologies and the unconscious cognitive tradeoffs we make as humans to understand them based on their utility. As humans we interact day to day with complex technologies — from Wifi to GPS — which we have grown accustomed to despite not truly understanding them. In these cases, transparency or control do not matter so much as a “it works for me” and the theoretical ability (theoretical because we could not really live without Wifi or electricity- just like we couldn’t live without ranking) to turn things off if needed. We accept to relinquish full control because in the cognitive tradeoff between fully understanding the technology and reaping its utility without understanding it, the latter wins.

What is the meaning of user control?

Once you consider the end goal of giving users agency, different interventions come to mind besides straight up ‘Controls’. Think about hiring a chef, or ordering a Uber. Do you need to take the wheel and impose directions or a particular way of cooking? Or do you really need to provide feedback and see that your feedback has been implemented? Thinking of feedback and preference as part of ‘agency’ opens new ways of empowering users- so long as avenues for feedback are deterministic and users know where to find them and use them consistently.

Finally, let’s consider trust. How much of our feeling of being in control is unlocked by trust? We as humans feel in control when it comes to our Wifi, our planes and our Ubers partly because we trust these technologies to work for us and for society as a whole. In other words, the technology itself has to be demonstrably trustworthy and safe (or at least neutral) before feelings of agency can develop. In the case of social media platforms, all the ‘controls’ or all the ‘user agency’ in the world will not matter if at the end of the day, people believe the underlying machinery consistently gears towards bad outcomes for people and society.

To recap, user control is a good vision for the future of algorithmic ranking- as long as a judgement call is made regarding which parts of the algorithms users will be able to control and how these controls will make people feel. There are other ways to create a sense of control than providing direct control. To start with, the algorithm has to be seen as trustworthy.

Exploring the intersection of technology and democracy.

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