Explore the phenomenon: Algorithms
An algorithm is a step-by-step description of a solution to a problem. These very words are included in the curriculum as early as in the first and second grade when programming is taught in mathematics. Algorithms lay a foundation for the programs we create and services and systems we use. Although the connection between Beebot and Scratch as well as Google’s search engines, a Facebook feed or the advanced control system of an aeroplane can be difficult to perceive, they are all based on the same basic principles: an algorithm uses information (such as a search term or sensor data of an aeroplane) to makes calculation and decisions, which then give a specific result.
Algorithms that show Google’s search results, social media feeds or recommendations on Spotify and Netflix yield results based on various data. The aim is to offer the user the thing they are probably looking for, in other words a result that corresponds to the user’s current needs and interests as well as possible. It may seem sensible that users only see the kind of content they are interested in. The internet is full of information and it is impossible to adopt it all. However, this can lead to the adverse outcome of algorithms making covert decisions on our behalf. The risks include a narrower world view and increased social antagonism due to varying types of results and feeds.
As algorithms rely more and more on a variety of data types to make decisions, concerns arise regarding the quality and appropriateness of the data used. If the data is biased or wrong, the results will also be prejudiced or incorrect. While this may at times go completely unnoticed, but it may have significant adverse effects. In some cases, it may not be particularly dangerous, but in others, it may have considerable negative consequences. For example, it may lead to the user not getting the support they need or the unjust exclusion of certain people during a recruitment process.
Algorithms play a pivotal role in today’s increasingly digital society, not only in the development of programs but also in comprehending the functioning of the services and systems we utilise. At the same time, it is important to remember that we people are the crucial component when it comes to creating systems that promote the common good and equality. As we are the ones who create algorithms, we get to decide what type of information they process and how the results are used.
Journalist Johanna Vehkoo’s story on algorithms on the Kone Foundation website.
Information on algorithms on the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare’s Nuortennetti website (in Finnish)
Text: Linda Mannila
Image: Siru Tirronen
The media landscape of children and young people keeps changing, with new phenomena following each other back-to-back. Providing pupils with tools for understanding and processing these phenomena is important. This learning package is part of Pathways to New Media Phenomena – Information and Exercise Materials Series. The series includes information and exercises for the teacher and the pupils. You can explore new phenomena in a meaningful way with the help of the “How to discuss new media literacy phenomena through pedagogical means?” method.
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