Three books about living in a world full of algorithms

The current digital revolution influences the way we look at ourselves, says Jos de Mul, professor of philosophical anthropology at Erasmus University Rotterdam. This already happened during the scientific revolution in the 17th century. The universe was then no longer seen as a living whole, but as a kind of mechanical clock. This also changed our self-image: we came to see humans as a complicated machine whose broken parts we can replace.

This time it is the databases and algorithms that influence our self-image. All kinds of information is stored and processed, from the stuff you buy online to your regular run. During a lecture in De Studio of NEMO Science Museum on November 18, De Mul explained what this does to us. The lecture can be heard at the bottom of this article.

De Mul has three tips for books worth reading about living in a world full of databases and algorithms:

1. Algorithms in power van Hannah Fry

Algorithms to the Power of Hannah Fry

The Geus

Should a self-driving car save as many lives as possible in a collision, or should the safety of the occupants come first? Would you rather be tried by an algorithm without empathy or an error-prone human judge? In Algorithms in power Mathematician Hannah Fry examines various dilemmas that arise as algorithms play an increasingly important role in our lives. She not only discusses different types of data and algorithms, but also looks at their use in public areas. “Hannah Fry is not averse to algorithms, but she does see the dangers in them,” says De Mul. “In this book she tries to create a nuanced picture. She would rather not see self-driving cars, but she is in favor of cars that correct us. People must always remain involved.”

2. The Master Algorithm van Pedro Domingos

“Some people are super enthusiastic about algorithms, and one of them is Pedro Domingos,” says De Mul. In The Master Algorithm the Portuguese expert in the field of artificial intelligence is looking for an algorithm with which you could detect all knowledge from reality. He does this on the basis of five different learning schools within machine learning. By combining these learning schools, we would arrive at an algorithm that can explain and derive everything from our present and past. “He talks about a kind of divine algorithm from which all knowledge comes. I myself am a bit skeptical about these kinds of predictions, because I once read the short story The Library of Babylon by Jorge Luis Borges, which also discusses this,” says De Mul.

3. No, you are not a gadget van Jaron Lanier

“Jaron Lanier is an interesting figure from Silicon Valley: bassist in a reggae band and one of the inventors of virtual reality,” says De Mul. “Over the years, he has become increasingly critical of, in particular, the revenue model surrounding algorithms and the internet.” In No, you are not a gadget Lanier looks back on the development of information technology. He discusses and criticizes the way large internet companies deal with their users and the data they generate. “According to Lanier, you could organize the internet very differently: Facebook should actually pay you for every click.”

Read an earlier interview by NEMO Kennislink with Jos de Mul about where people will go if the world changes into a database.

Listen to Jos de Mul’s entire lecture about the influence of databases on our self-image.

Source: Kennislink by

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