November 2022 Articles

Just Don’t

Tim Bray ·

Do not, to quote the [Oxford English Dictionary], “represent as a small thing” the difficulty of something you’re asking someone else to do, when you’re not inside their head and don’t understand what they see and feel. The word “just” is a signal that you’re not taking their problem seriously.

So, don’t do that.

I’d like to say “Just don’t” but obviously shouldn’t.

So the chant over there is “No algorithms on Mastodon!” This chant is wrong, and the discussion around it teaches us that we need clarity on what algorithms are, what moral weight they can carry, and whether they can be avoided. (Spoiler: They can’t.)

This all started when I interjected here, and the longest and most twisted Mastodon thread I have so far seen ensued. Let’s start with my initial remarks:

I disagree. An algorithm is not intrinsically bad. As long as we understand that it represents the interests of whoever paid to have it constructed. I think an algorithm with human values that simply wanted to enrich experience is perfectly possible.

I haven’t seen one, probably because nobody has ever had a financial incentive to construct it.

Mastodon would be a good place to try to make one.

Algorithms, and user interfaces, are all inherently designed and biased in some way to achieve an outcome. For example, at TrueNorth, we would display certain information for the Payments team when they were preparing checks for all of our truckers. That screen was sorted in a certain way and displayed certain information — it wasn’t the raw data from a single table in the database but rather multiple tables joined together. I think we developed a good algorithm but certainly one that could be improved from a process perspective (“How can we help the Payments team process payouts faster while maintaining quality and accuracy?”).

Tim’s right, algorithms can be, and are in many contexts, good!