Sideswipes: The Mythology Of Media

We live in an algorithm atmosphere — algorithms breathing in everything from traffic data to personal data in order to recommend everything from what to watch to whom to love. This atmosphere hovers everywhere above and around us. Mythology works like this too. A mythology is a narrative that explains the world. It hangs in the air and is our truth about how nature, culture, or people work.

The current mythology of the algorithm is that it is making the world smarter, more efficient, and better informed. That trickles down to our personal mythology about how we are smarter, more efficient, and better informed for living in the era of the algorithm. And still one level further down, that trickles into our behavior. As our belief in the mythology of the algorithm grows stronger, we accept more and more recommendations.

It's not that the mythology is necessarily true, however, argues technologist Jaron Lanier this month in the culture magazine Edge. Despite the fact that we behave as though the mythology is real, Lanier makes more than a few insightful points about distinguishing between the function of an algorithm and the mythology of it.



The function of an algorithm is the real thing it does. For example, the Face++ algorithms for facial recognition combine facial recognition with if/then triggers that allow users to create actions that respond to recognized images. A store owner could use the technology to id VIPs in the store and to activate exclusive experiences.

The mythology of an algorithm is what it will do. Some of these mythologies currently include smart cities and redesigned bodies. These are the stories that fuel the conversations about The Internet of Things, where everything will be smarter, cheaper, greener, and healthier if we continue our love for algorithms.

The flip side is a radical letdown when the myth doesn't materialize out of the love. Think about how often we feel pumped while watching clips on YouTube, only to hit a recommend that's a total dud. It's like a slap in the face.

As media and mythology begin to sideswipe one another through the story of the algorithm, it's an interesting moment to ask a chicken-or-the-egg question about the media you run: can it deliver on the myths your algorithms are creating? Or will your myths collapse on themselves?

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