Code is law, and also romance

Alexis Madrigal has an interesting column in this month’s Atlantic on the use of algorithms in online dating.  If data mining and algorithms can help people more efficiently find matches, what could be wrong with that?  Plenty, says Madrigal:

The company can quantify things you could guess but might rather not prove. For instance, all races of women respond better to white men than they should based on the men’s looks. Black women, as a group, are the least likely to have their missives returned, but they are the most likely to respond to messages.

I asked Yagan whether OkCupid might try tailoring its algorithm to surface more statistically successful racial combinations. Such a measure wasn’t out of the question, he said. “Imagine we did a lot of research, and we found that there were certain demographic or psychographic attributes that were predictors of three-ways. Hispanic men and Indian women, say,” Yagan suggested. “If we thought that drove success, we could tweak it so those matches showed up more often. Not because of a social mission, but because if it’s working, there needs to be more of it.”

So perhaps it’s a bit tricker than we might think.  Moreover, it’s hard to disagree with his basic point:

Algorithms are made to restrict the amount of information the user sees—that’s their raison d’être. By drawing on data about the world we live in, they end up reinforcing whatever societal values happen to be dominant, without our even noticing. They are normativity made into code—albeit a code that we barely understand, even as it shapes our lives.

We’re not going to stop using algorithms. They’re too useful. But we need to be more aware of the algorithmic perversity that’s creeping into our lives.

Quite so.  This point is in line with Lawrence Lessig’s argument that “code is law”, and I certainly agree that we need to care, as a society, about the values underlying our code.

That said, Madrigal points out that dating algorithms are 1) not transparent and 2) can accelerate disturbing social phenomena, like racial inequity.

True enough, but is this any different from offline dating?  The social phenomena in question are presumably the result of the state of the offline world, so the issue then is primarily transparency.

Does offline dating foster transparency in a way online dating does not?  I’m not sure.  Think about the circumstances by which you might meet someone offline.  Perhaps a friend’s party.  How much information do you really have about the people you’re seeing?  You know a little, certainly.  Presumably they are all connected to the host in some way.  But beyond that, it’s not clear that you know much more than you do when you fire up OkCupid.  On what basis were they invited to the party?  Did the host consciously invite certain groups of friends and not others, based on who he or she thought would get along together?

Is it at least possible that, given the complexity of life, we are no more aware of the real-world “algorithms” that shape our lives?

None of this takes away from the salience of Madrigal’s point: we should want to know more about the algorithms that dictate our online behavior.  Not because we aren’t used to the opaque complexity of circumstance, but because we are.

(FWIW, I highly recommend OkCupid’s blog, OkTrends.  They put the scary amount of data to which they have access to consistently interesting use.)