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The algorithmics of reliability

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The algorithmics of reliability

Before the internet flood – about a thousand mobile years ago – in 2005, Tom Friedman published his book The World is Flat. But for all his keen insights, he couldn't fathom just how flat it would become or to what extent we would come to hold it – on little smartphone and tablet screens – in our hand. 

It's not farfetched to claim that we hold in the palm of our hand virtually all the information we need in a world that is hurtling towards the 22nd century – our memories, lists, friends, shopping, sports activities and health, even our emotions – it's all there, right at the tips of our fingers.

At the same time though, as our fingers flutter over the screen in search of information, we are also providing the powers that be of the big-data world copious amounts of personal data. We too are merely information, a commodity of sorts. 

Nowadays, anyone searching for something or sharing his or her life with the world must realize that by doing so, they become another chunk of data, monitored, segmented and analyzed to the very last byte. 

Anyone who has ever searched TripAdvisor.com for a hotel, say in New York City, will thereafter be subjected to relentless soliciting from dozens of New York hotels. Searching for headache remedies will instantaneously yield a hailstorm of targeted ads in each and every website visited, slinking through pop-up blockers in pursuit of their target like bloodthirsty hound-dogs after their prey. 

So it follows that if we are the data, we should, at least, know who is holding that information and how they are using it. After all, one may assume that this information is not harnessed to our benefit; rather, it is exploited for the holder's gain. 

Also worth some serious consideration: if we and our personal info are a commodity, how can we gain from its use, instead of giving it away free so algorithm owners can chalk up another fat exit? Now there's an idea for a startup. 

One way or another, I'm not standing here today to lament the loss of privacy in the bowels of big data – it's too late for that. The genie is out of the bottle, never to return. We're all fodder for algorithms that aim to gather as much information as it takes to get us to buy more, faster, stronger. I tolerate this because I have no choice. I could, of course, flush my smartphone down the toilet but truth be told - I cannot live without my mobile. 

Having come from a long history in the field of information – in days of yore before the world-wide-web took over – the questions bothering me today are who manufactures information and how? Who disseminates it, and who holds the power over its distribution channels? These questions become more pertinent as the wonders of technology allow squeezing ever growing quantities of information into smaller screens that have become a 24/7 extension of our hands and lives.

Let's talk about the information we consume – after losing the last semblance of privacy and being reduced to blocks of data, we should at the very least ensure the integrity of the information we use. We should be able to rest assured that reviews on social networks or rating sites are based on user-input, and not subjected to biased search engines skewed by robots. We deserve the peace of mind in knowing that our brains aren't being manipulated. If this holds true for our right to choose restaurants of clothing items based purely on ratings, just imagine how important it is for news and current affairs, health services, finances, security, defense, politics and life itself. 

We are addicted to the wonderful ease of accessing free information on any subject, any time, readily at the tips of our fingers. But we never stopped to ask whose paying the bill. The boundaries between objective, beneficial and useful information that is devoid of ulterior motives and information that is biased, skewed and unreadable have been blurred and have long been the topic de jour in any discussion on "marketing content", "sponsored information" and other hackneyed euphemisms. 

We are beginning to realize – at least I hope we are – that we are unwittingly paying a dear price for free information. There are no free meals – especially if ordered online with a mobile device. 

The answer is to change the method of gathering and disseminating information, especially when it's important and critical. We should turn the wheel back and make information a valuable commodity that comes at a reasonable cost that we would willingly pay in the knowledge that it is reliable. 

In this vein, news sites charging money to access their content would not be dependent to such a great extent on hidden and visible advertising, as revenues would come from subscriptions. The Financial Times, The New York Times and other global papers have realized this long ago. Some papers in Israel are also attempting to revalue the information they offer. 

We all consume information and it behooves us to choose whether we prefer to be served unreliable – albeit free – information, sponsored by parties at interest, or pay for credible information that actually helps us make the right decisions, especially the important ones. 

It seems to me that we don't need an algorithm to answer that. 

Yoel Esteron is the founder and publisher of Calcalist, Israel's leading online financial news site. This blog is based on a presentation delivered at the 2015 Calcalist Mobile Conference.

Calcalist publisher 

Author

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

Date

2016-02-11 18:43

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