[APR 2015] “Love the processor, Hate the Process: The Temptations of Clever Algorithms and When to Resist Them”

by Barbara J. Mack

“Love the Processor, Hate the Process: The Temptations of Clever Algorithms and When to Resist Them”
Jonathan Zittrain, George Bemis Professor of International Law and Professor of Computer Science, Harvard Universit
MIT CSAIL, Aptil 1, 2015

The Internet has deep roots in academia and research organizations, but as it has grown over the past few decades, commercial interests have played a tremendous part in influencing not only content and commerce, but also public policy, international regulation, and fundamental elements like privacy, security, and access. 

In this Big Data Lecture, Jonathan Zittrain, George Bemis Professor of Law and Computer Science at Harvard Law School, examined some of the key concerns over the current state of Web, big data and AI technologies, noting that we live in “anxious times.”  Leading thinkers including Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Nick Bostrom have all reflected on progress with regard to artificial intelligence and there is no clear consensus on how much of it will be seen as a force for good.

This kind of concern highlights a deeper anxiety about autonomy and control, says Zittrain, and we need to evaluate how our lives intersect with technology in general and algorithms in particular, as they shift from serving as tools to being perceived as our “agents” – providing us with advice and suggestions on what to do.   While we have a tendency to rely on technology as a neutral source of information, algorithms are increasingly able to shape our perceptions in subtle and not so subtle ways, both expanding and limiting our access to the broadest possible world of information.

Zittrain offered a series of real world examples and hypotheticals, inviting the audience to consider how it perceived Google search results, Facebook news feeds, and Twitter trends, when it is evident that social behavior, individual moods, and the acquisition of useful knowledge are strongly influenced by choices made by the machines that process our requests and personal interactions.

Further, while corporations set deliberate agendas to tilt results a certain way, there is evidence that technological processes sometimes takes on a life of their own, as was the case with a price war between two book vendors that resulted in one title being advertised for over a million dollars.   In some cases, such results are amusing, but they also serve as a cautionary note on what is to come in the future

Two of the key criteria for assessing such questions entail establishing who knows about the activities and their potential risks and who will be able to see the outcomes in action.  Zittrain credited a framework by Christian Sandvig that emphasizes what is predictable (by designers) and what is discoverable (by users).  He then offered a number of approaches to mitigation, including pushing for greater transparency, developing a conscious role for what he said Jack Balkin has called “information fiduciaries” that would serve as responsible guides and gatekeepers, and deployment of so-called “stove-pipe” solutions in some cases.  Above all, however, is the positive force of competition and here, he says, is where things may be breaking down in practice.

If the Internet is deemed to be a public utility, should there be more support at an institutional or governmental level to ensure that more search engines can thrive?  What are the consequences when one auction site develops a virtual monopoly online?  Drawing academia and research organizations back in to the conversation, Zittrain asks, what would happen if tomorrow’s CERN were run by private interests instead of being a public good – if Facebook discovered the equivalent of the Higgs Boson—would we hear about it?

In closing, Zittrain encouraged the audience to seek out a greater role for academia in shaping the debates and development of tools, agents, and AI “friends” as the Internet and related technologies advance towards the future.  The best outcomes will be obtained when we have choice and competition; academia can be a catalyst to ensure that this will happen.


Jonathan Zittrain is the George Bemis Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Director of the Harvard Law School Library, and Faculty Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. His research interests include battles for control of digital property and content, cryptography, electronic privacy, the roles of intermediaries within Internet architecture, human computing, and the useful and unobtrusive deployment of technology in education.

He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Board of Advisors for Scientific American. He has served as a Trustee of the Internet Society, and as a Forum Fellow of the World Economic Forum, which named him a Young Global Leader, and as Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the Federal Communications Commission, where he previously chaired the Open Internet Advisory Committee. His book The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It is available from Yale University Press and Penguin UK — and under a Creative Commons license.