I read a lot of stuff that talks about how much of our present and future, particularly in the context of information and content discovery, are being governed by algorithms and I think we're in danger of overplaying their role. So this highly thought-provoking piece in The Atlantic by Ian Bogost made for an interesting read. Ian talks about how we theologise algorithms and data, downplaying all the people, processes, materials and machines that comprise any 'technology':
'If algorithms aren’t gods, what are they instead? Like metaphors, algorithms are simplifications, or distortions. They are caricatures. They take a complex system from the world and abstract it into processes that capture some of that system’s logic and discard others. And they couple to other processes, machines, and materials that carry out the extra-computational part of their work.
I think at least part of the reason we downplay the human element in this is because algorithms are such mysterious things. We have no idea how most of those which impact our lives work. And yet an algorithm is simply a set of rules. Rules that are designed by people. We all make choices. Algorithms need human judgement to construct. Data needs people to interpet and apply learning. And the way in which we discover things is derived from multiple forms of curation. As Ian says:
'Algorithms aren’t gods. We need not believe that they rule the world in order to admit that they influence it, sometimes profoundly.'
Part of the reason I liked Noah's strategy as algorithm metaphor so much is that it appreciates the human aspects of the process. If strategy is about 'building algorithms (rules) that help drive optimal outcomes in decisions' it still takes a human to design those rules, takes account of what the programmer knows and has set as their vision.
It strikes me that there is an additional aspect to this metaphor as well - the fact that most algorithms are continually changing. Perhaps the most famous one of all, the Google search algorithm, is reportedly tweaked between 500-600 times a year. And occasionally a major update impacts how it works in more fundamental ways. Similarly if strategy is about the set of rules that helps deliver an outcome we need to continuously review those rules. We still have a clear vision and direction for where we are going, but we need to make constant tweaks around the edges to adapt to a changing environment, and every so often make a significant correction to keep us on track when we're in danger of getting thrown off-course. But, like most things, it is the combination of people and machines that gives the process such power.