12-12-2011 mag 6 /

article/

D’oh. The software tricked me, again!

Abstract: 

Businesses depend heavily on software. Do they understand the algorithms behind it, or are they feeding an unforeseen predator?

The financial crisis laid bare the use of predatory algorithms in the financial world. In the software driven world of financial institutions, these high frequency trading (HFT) algorithms caused quite a stir in the past years. At the symposium Trouble Ahead: The struggle for secrecy and transparency hosted by the Impakt festival, Dutch media theorist Geert Lovink, co writer of the ‘A call to the Army of Love and to the Army of Software’ manifesto, called on the moral instinct of programmers.

According to Lovink, there is certainly trouble ahead if we don’t act now. Predatory algorithms can do some serious damage, as seen in the financial sector. It appears that the crusade for increased automation in our global economy - by implementing and connecting software – has backfired for most of us. Today we are faced with yet another financial crisis. Is Lovink on the right track by calling on the morals of programmers? Are the algorithms made by these programmers, contained in major software environments we use, outsmarting us?

Empowering of algorithms
In fact they do, as we have seen in the automated financial system. In order to keep costs down and profits up businesses are also increasingly relying on automated processes. This is especially true in times of recession. For centuries, we humans turned to tools to fix our problems. Software then, can fix all our problems. But can they? In fact, we are the ones empowering algorithms further and further, embedding their potentially predatory power in the very core of businesses around the globe. But what do we point to as the source of this increased automatization and embedding of potentially predatory algorithms? Does the pressure of the financial crisis drive businesses towards more automatization and does this help us gain more control over our business processes? And the biggest question of all; didn’t predatory algorithms start this crisis in the first place?

SAP runs the world
While it is unrealistic to point towards a single point of failure, predatory algorithms certainly helped to speed up the collapse of our financial institutions. According to Lovink, the software created by SAP (a German IT company, which stands for; Systems, Applications and Products in Data Processing) runs the world, and is little researched. From car manufacturers like Audi and Ford, to pharmaceutical players like Bayer and Pfizer, they all use SAP software. So, is SAP the next predatory algorithm to arise? While it is not that difficult to understand the uses of SAP for the common man, it’s nearly impossible to understand the algorithms behind it. Calling towards more transparency from software companies like Lovink does, thus sounds like a good plan. However, secrecy is embedded in these companies who survive on monetizing the algorithms they make. So how can we call for transparency then?

Critical stance towards software algorithms
Would a moral appeal on programmers work? Lovink asks programmers to create self- empowering software for society and refrain from creating predatory algorithms as seen in the financial sector. But will programmers really turn to the ‘light’ side, when instead they can earn vast amounts of money on the dark side of programming? Apart from a handful of programmers with ideological motives, who probably already make empowering software, the answer is most likely no. Besides this monetary incentive I’m not sure if programmers can oversee the variety of ways their algorithms can be used. However, Lovinks manifesto does help us to ask critical questions about the way algorithms shape society. In effect, we should not try to ‘break down’ the system in a way Lovink agues, but train the new generation of programmers to be more critical of the algorithms they make. Making some quick cash at the expense of others will become increasingly difficult as systems are becoming more and more intertwined. Chances are that you, as a programmer, create your own pitfall like we have witnessed in the financial sector. Not only programmers, but also we as society need a critical stance towards software that drives our world. Obviously, calling SAP a predatory algorithm beforehand will not help our understanding further. Just as we check check for dodgy solicitors when hiring, we need to critically check which software, and more specifically, which algorithms, will get a job in the inner most parts of our companies.