Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World by Christopher Steiner

automate this

Although not as good as Nate Silver’s Signal and the Noise in describing the workings and intellectual history of algorithms (read predictive analytics), Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World by Christopher Steiner offers a much more compelling and maybe even coherent narrative. The book starts out as a history of the hacker and the bot which may strike many as an oversimplification. Identities of programmers, designers, engineers are all simplified in a history of “the hacker” while software, algorithms, information systems are all simplified in a history of “the bot”.

Sure, it might not be apt to call Ada Lovelace a hacker, but the author is driving at an explanation of how the rise of algorithms in our lives is the result of the concentration of money and talent (i.e. hackers and bots) in financial speculation: effectively predicting and efficiently trading on the market. These innovations include software, but very much also telecommunication infrastructure.

The rise of Silicon Valley is significantly dependent on the application of algorithms, telecom infrastructure, and talent that were raised on Wall Street. The author argues that the shift of talent and money in algorithm R&D away from Wall Street has a lot to do with changing attitudes towards the financial industry by young engineers thanks to the Great Recession and the activism of Occupy Wall Street.

The author offers a caution about this that may not seem so relevant anymore now that tech giants are also losing their luster after NSA surveillance revelations. Yet, it seems the subtle point by the author is that the transformation is too late: we are already extremely and unconsciously dependent on algorithms in our quest for happiness.