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What’s an algorithm?

I’ve been thinking I might need to replace my current lawnmower, so yesterday I took a picture of an orange-colored model on display in a big-box store. Today, what showed up in my email inbox? An eBay listing not for lawn mowers, but chainsaws in the same orange color used by the manufacturer of the mower I took a picture of yesterday.

A coincidence? I’m thinking not. Nothing in my online wanderings would suggest I need a chainsaw. I’m going to guess an algorithm got yesterday’s story almost right, but not quite.

Algorithms (of the computer variety, anyway) are mathematical rules that programmers write to help computers do things like recognize patterns and trends and make connections much, much faster than any human could. And they’re getting quite good, helped in no small part by algorithms that can be written to help computers teach themselves even better algorithms.

An algorithm has learned your shopping habits and is behind the suggestions that appear at the top of lists. An algorithm is also guessing what you might be looking for as you type in a search field, saving you keystrokes. If you spend any time on Facebook, an algorithm is learning—and remembering, mind you—what kinds of news stories or personalities you’re attracted to, and it’s more than happy to keep serving you these same kinds of stories so you keep coming back for more. It’s how search engines and social media make their money—not only by selling the carefully selected ads displayed just for you, but also by delivering a very specific audience of users to potential influencers willing to pay.

I don’t mind algorithms making suggestions for things I choose to be interested in, but I get a little uneasy when they continue to serve up only what I’ve already eaten. It appears it’s as hard to find a balanced diet online as it is in real life.

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