Picture: Kon Karampelas/Pixabay
Picture: Kon Karampelas/Pixabay

Tech News: How algorithms attempt to control the way we view our world

By Louis Fourie Time of article published Jul 5, 2021

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I HAVE written before about how our lives in today’s digital world are largely controlled by algorithms. We see how they are shaping the world around us and are determining many outcomes, but many people do not have an idea to what extent our lives are influenced and controlled by these algorithms. Every time we do a Google search, buy something online, look at our Facebook feed, or use the GPS navigation system, we are interacting with an algorithm.

Algorithms are making numerous decisions in our society. They determine what we read, watch, and listen to. But gradually these algorithms have gone further to shift the way our society is operating. Lately, they even attempt to control our happiness and change how we see the world and ourselves.

Equation for happiness

Four years ago, Mo Gawdat, the chief business officer of Google (X), wrote a book Solve for Happy: Engineer your path to joy. Mo created an equation to reach a state of happiness irrespective of the circumstances of life. Basically, his equation boils down to the balancing of experiences and expectations. If people perceive the events of their life as equal to or greater than their expectations of how life should behave, they are happy.

In business this equation typically translates to the managing of expectations and perceptions of employees, customers, partners, stakeholders, and investors. But the book does not focus on managing expectations (the typical under-promise and over-deliver), but rather on managing perceptions or subjective realities. People’s perceptions may be experienced as very real, but they are only subjective interpretations and not facts. The opportunity is thus to re-frame people’s perceptions in a positive way, and in doing so create happiness. If people perceive a product to be sub-standard the experience can be reframed in a positive way as a sneak preview or a beta-version that will be improved by people’s valuable input.

Algorithm to happiness

Google, Apple, and many other tech companies frequently use this technique to re-frame potentially sub-par perceptions positively. Some companies build this principle into their algorithms to ensure happiness. One company that excels in this is TikTok.

TikTok is mostly known as an entertaining app with a continuous stream of addictive short videos that make you smile even after a difficult day at work. While other platforms rely solely on users’ active online behaviour (e.g. following, friending, subscribing, liking, and clicking) to determine their preferences, TikTok also captures users’ passive and subtle behavioural patterns such as the number of video loops, the speed of scrolling, and the preference for certain effects and sounds. TikTok is thus able to provide a highly personalised content feed even if users are completely passive in their viewing behaviour. TikTok’s content is based solely on an algorithm powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

TikTok tests every video first with a small group and if it enjoys high engagement, it is pushed to increasingly larger audiences. Every person that opens TikTok and lands in the “For You feed” is presented with a stream of videos carefully curated according to their interests that will “inspire creativity and bring joy with every refresh.” TikTok provides instant, personal TV with an emphasis on giving people “excitement, surprise, and delight in a few seconds.”

TikTok recently changed their slogan from “Make every second count” (referring to the short duration of the videos) to “Make your day” indicating their emphasis on happiness. Unlike other similar services, the TikTok algorithm does not favour users with the largest group of followers, but rather promotes “happy” content because younger users put a premium on authenticity and stress relief. This is the reason why TikTok’s mission is “To inspire creativity and to bring joy.”

The management of TikTok ascribes its popularity to the fact that people are getting social media fatigue due to all the negativity on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and are rather gravitating to TikTok, which is a much “happier place.” In fact, it is the very “happiness algorithm” that makes TikTok very addictive due to the endless quick stimulation of easy-to-get happiness.

South African happiness

The recent happiness report of 2021 provides the happiness scores of 149 countries. South Africa came in at a rating of 4.956, much better than the least happy countries in Africa such as Zimbabwe (3.1) and Rwanda (3.4), but lower than the happiest country, namely Mauritius (6.0), as well as many others such as Libya (5.4), Congo (5.3), Cameroon (5.1), Niger (5.1), Ghana (5.1), The Gambia (5.1), and Senegal (5.1). Overall, in the world, South Africa is not doing well on the happiness index with a place of only 103rd out of 149.

Except for some major improvements, it thus seems as if South Africa can do with more happiness algorithms! Could this perhaps be what Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the tainted former CEO of the SABC, was trying to do with his “sunshine journalism” of 70% positive news?

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a technology strategist

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or title sites

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