The Algorithmic Self


Frank Pasquale in The Hedgehog Review:

At a recent conference on public health, nutrition expert Kelly Brownell tried to explain our new food environment by making some striking comparisons. First, he contrasted the coca leaf—chewed for pain relief for thousands of years by indigenous people in South America, with little ill effect—with cocaine, a highly addictive, mind-altering substance. Then he contrasted a cob of corn with a highly processed piece of candy derived from corn syrup. Nutritious in its natural state, the concentrated sugar in corn can spark unhealthy, even addictive behaviors once poured into candy. With corn and with coca, the dose makes the poison, as Paracelsus put it. And in the modern era of “food science,” dozens of analysts may be spending millions of dollars just to perfect the “mouthfeel” and flavor profile of a single brand of chips.

Should we be surprised, then, that Americans are losing the battle of the bulge? Indeed, the real wonder is not that two-thirds of the US population is overweight, but that one-third remains “normal,” to use an adjective that makes sense only in relation to an earlier era’s norms.

For many technology enthusiasts, the answer to the obesity epidemic—and many other problems—lies in computational countermeasures to the wiles of the food scientists. App developers are pioneering behavioristic interventions to make calorie counting and exercise prompts automatic. For example, users of a new gadget, the Pavlok wristband, can program it to give them an electronic shock if they miss exercise targets. But can such stimuli break through the blooming, buzzing distractions of instant gratification on offer in so many rival games and apps? Moreover, is there another way of conceptualizing our relationship to our surroundings than as a suboptimal system of stimulus and response?

Some of our subtlest, most incisive cultural critics have offered alternatives. Rather than acquiesce to our manipulability, they urge us to become more conscious of its sources—be they intrusive advertisements or computers that we (think we) control. For example, Sherry Turkle, founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, sees excessive engagement with gadgets as a substitution of the “machinic” for the human—the “cheap date” of robotized interaction standing in for the more unpredictable but ultimately challenging and rewarding negotiation of friendship, love, and collegiality.

More here.