Techno Utopians Teaching us about the Real World

I am ever more disheartened by the narrow path that formal logic and its digital reincarnation – algorithms are enforcing on our otherwise wonderfully complex and uncertain reality.

The latest moves by organisations who wield power in the digital “domain” are trying to shift their product to offline places. Are there Algorithms we can live by? Algorithms can be used as an analogy to look back at our world through the lens of the digital. However, by doing so we put algorithms in the place of reality’s original – heuristics. While an algorithm often implies an optimal solution that can be achieved they are often only suitable to small worlds, like the ones of digital websites. On the other hand heuristics are simple rules of thumb that do not guarantee optimal outcomes but are good enough. Heuristics have got themselves a bad reputation as research has often focused on the bias that can occur when we rely on them. I will argue that formal logic and algorithms are biased from the get go - they assume reality is better perceived if reduced rather than conceptually abstracted. These are two different approaches that I only recently started pondering about. Conceptual abstraction means that there is some reduction, necessary for us to make a decision but reductionism goes that one step further to ignore that the abstraction removed some detail in the first place.

Techno utopians are great at formal logic, but formal logic is reductionist and does not account fro the many other ways people can engage with the world we inhabit. Let us not forget that when the next wave of algorithms that will solve our urban crises start being sold to the decision-makers who want to be hip and give up the torment of uncertainty for the comfort of pretend certainty.

Some references:

Gigerenzer, G. & Brighton, H. (2009), "Homo heuristicus: why biased minds make better inferences", Topics in cognitive science, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 107-143.

Gigerenzer, G., & Todd, P. M. (1999). Simple heuristics that make us smart. Oxford University Press, USA.

Simon, H. (1987), "Models of Bounded Rationality: Empirically Grounded Economic Reason", Journal of Macroeconomics, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 425.