After the insanity of the U.S. election, a lot of people are blaming Facebook for its algorithms that parse us into ideological bubbles and spread “fake news” and other kinds of misinformation. Some critics — like this author — claim the Facebook algorithm is the most powerful in the world.
I beg to differ.
It may be true that proprietary algorithms are helping undermine (even destroy) the fabric of democracy in different parts of the world. A great deal of harm has been done by concealing the social filters that select which information we see in our networks. But there are more powerful algorithms to be reckoned with.
I will share three… two that are created by humans and one that will be the ultimate arbiter of outcomes in the future. But first, let me define what an algorithm is:
An algorithm is a procedure or formula for solving a problem, based on conducting a sequence of specified actions. (Go here for more)
Another way to say this is that an algorithm is “a set of rules that precisely defines a sequence of operations.” Or said in layperson terms it is a recipe for computing, calculating, or generating some kind of pattern.
Two “Cultural” Algorithms That Rule the World
While it is true that Facebook has a set of rules for determining what appears in our newsfeed, it is not nearly as powerful as two other algorithms that have profoundly shaped the world we live in.
They are the Algorithm for Creating Money and the Algorithm for Profit-Making. Each has influenced the formation (and design) of companies like Facebook. And each has shaped how the global economy functions at the deepest levels. Let’s start with the first one.
One of the best kept secrets on Earth is also a giant scam. Very few people know how money is created. If you asked a random person on the street, they might say it is printed by the Federal Reserve (or its equivalent) or that it comes from the bank. What they are not likely to know is that money is an algorithm that looks like this:
Money = Debt + Interest
Most money is created by visiting a bank and taking out a loan. A few clicks on the keyboard and POOF! the numerical value in your account is increased. Maybe you had $500 in the bank before, but then you took out a loan for another $1000. Like magic, your account now reads $1500.
But here’s the trick. You increased the size of your account by taking out a loan. So you are now in debt to the bank for the amount you borrowed, plus the amount you will pay back in interest.
This simple accounting maneuver is how most of the world’s money supply gets created. And it is an insidiously powerful maneuver! Since the interest is usually applied in a compounding fashion (calculated and added to the total in regular time intervals), the amount of debt tends to increase exponentially.
What this means is that a set of procedural rules is causing the money supply (which is equivalent to the debt supply) to grow in an accelerating fashion.
If enough people fail to make payments, the whole system will stall out and collapse. It is only able to continue operating so long as the economic productivity of all who have loans also grows exponentially.
This is why the economy MUST grow to avoid collapse. It’s the consequence of an algorithm for creating money. And this is why people are strongly encouraged to consume more products and services — even as doing so destroys the natural environment around us.
The Algorithm for Creating Money is so powerful that it is literally causing us to consume and destroy the biosphere of the Earth! This is much more powerful than Facebook’s sorting algorithm for your newsfeed.
The Algorithm for Profit-Making is similarly powerful. It says that the owner of capital must earn a profit on the investments he or she makes. Note how the mathematical formula is identical to the algorithm for creating money:
Investment = Amount Invested + Profit
In the last 40 years, this formula has had an additional rule. It says that a publicly-traded company (that issues stock on a public stock exchange) must maximize quarterly returns for its investors. This algorithm has heavily skewed large businesses toward a cancerous form of economic growth that is required to chew through and destroy smaller companies, niche markets, communities of people, and the environment — if doing so will result in a larger profit than not doing so.
You can already imagine how this algorithm shaped the Facebooks of the world. They are required to choose pathways to profit over pathways to societal well-being. We have the newsfeed algorithms for social media because they are embedded within this deeper logic of short-term profit maximization. It is a powerful algorithm indeed.
The Most Powerful Algorithm on Earth
Both of the algorithms described above are made by humans. They can be changed by simply changing the rules for how the economy operates. They are clearly very powerful.
But there is another algorithm that will determine the fate of humanity and all businesses large and small. It is the Algorithm of Living Things that was first clearly articulated by Charles Darwin. It goes like this:
- All living things reproduce.
- During reproduction, there is “descent with modification” that allows for small variations in the living thing as it is reproduced.
- There is also a “natural selection” whereby those living things that are better adapted to their environment will tend to survive with greater frequency and continue the process of reproduction for the next generation.
This algorithm is deceptively simple. It says that living things tend toward greater diversity of possibilities so long as their offspring are better adapted to their settings than other living things in the same environment.
Apply this to global humanity today and think about the algorithms mentioned above. Any economic system built on the formulas of exploding debt and a requirement for short-term monetary return will alter its environment with increasing intensity. Communities are destroyed. Money is increasingly hoarded in a world with intensifying poverty and inequality. And the environment is actively damaged to keep the house of cards from collapsing on itself.
This is a cultural system that does not follow the Algorithm for Living Things. Therefore it will undermine its own viability until it brings about ruination and collapse for itself.
In the end, Darwinian evolution will still be the most powerful algorithm on Earth. The further we disrupt planetary climate, deplete the soils that grow our food, poison air and waterways we depend upon for our survival… the more unfit our cultural system becomes for reproduction and survival in the future.
So yeah, Facebook has a powerful algorithm. It has been deeply harmful in recent elections. But there are more powerful patterns in motion that need to be addressed with great urgency.
I leave you to ponder the significance.
Onward, fellow humans.