I believe that I am on vacation. I am with my family at a beautiful alpine lake enjoying the landscape, their company and a break from our usual routines. I am finding more time for concentrated reading and that feels very much like vacation.
I’m reading two books currently: Black Box Society by Frank Pasquale which was recommended to me by Audrey Watters and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling which I am reading aloud to my 7 year old. It just dawned on me that there are striking parallels in these readings that kind of blow my mind when I think about them.
Frank Pasquale is a legal scholar who describes the largely mysterious yet highly engineered algorithmic foundations of our increasingly digitized existences. Beyond our patterns of online clicks, he examines the degree to which mathematical models of reasoning are used to determine everything from credit scores to having a job application get beyond an initial (computerized) screening to the privacy of our health data. As consumers and citizens we submit our data in the hopes of fair treatment and are confronted with decisions and outcomes delivered via ‘black box’ or opaque processes which are nearly impenetrable in their secrecy and complexity. Black Box Society takes on this omnipresent state of affairs and at the very least seeks to acquaint us with the monster that is not merely in the room, but is instead the room itself.
Meanwhile, my son clamors for more every time I read a section of Harry Potter. This is at least my second time around reading the first in the 7-book series (of which I have only read the first three) and it is quite simply a well told yarn. I have a new appreciation of the vivid characters and actually can catch more of the fabulous play on words that abounds. ( Just got Diagon Alley, for instance.) So he and I both are having a fun time with this project.
Even if you haven’t read any of the Harry Potter series, you’ll likely know that the story is predicated on parallel realities: the magical world inhabited by witches, wizards, goblins and other fantastic creatures and characters and the non-magical Muggle world in which the rest of us carry on our day-to-day. These worlds co-exist. While the magical folk have plenty of awareness of Muggle society, the Muggles remain decidedly unaware of any such alternative to their known ways of functioning. The witches, wizards and goblins know what Muggles cannot fathom, entertain or comprehend, unless a Muggle is specifically invited and initiated into the magical world. Hmmm…
The algorithmic ‘black boxes’ that Pasquale illustrates are by no means magical. On the contrary. They are fully human engineered and calibrated processes created with the assistance of great computing power and speed. They are complex, they hold and demand secrecy, and exert influence on an enormous scale but they are not magic. However, almost all of us function without specific knowledge or understanding of exactly how and to what degree these ‘black boxes’ help and hinder our daily affairs. Pasquale likens this state to a one-way mirror:
We do not live in a peaceable kingdom of private walled gardens; the contemporary world more closely resembles a one-way mirror. Important corporate actors have unprecedented knowledge of the minutiae of our daily lives, while we know little to nothing about how they use this knowledge to influence the important decisions that we – and they – make.
It therefore seems as if we inhabit a sort of parallel reality – a space in which matters run their course and we accept and deal with the outcomes without having a full idea of how these matters took their precise shape or ran the way that they did. For the black boxes which have so firmly taken root in our lives and the control we continue to surrender to them both individually and institutionally, they may as well be magical. And we as oblivious as Muggles.
Thankfully, Harry Potter provides a narrative of ongoing discovery. Although he is a born wizard, he spends his unhappy formative years in a fiercely Muggle family and has no idea of his magical roots until he is eleven. He has to learn about all things magical from the ground up: his powers, his limits, his status, his role – and then make something of it all both for himself and ultimately for Hogwarts (his wizards’ academy) and beyond. Granted, I know how this part of the story ends and Harry Potter is a likable hero – he struggles, he succeeds, we can cheer and we know he’s not done. He gets to work through similar processes for 6 more books, after all.
In a similar vein, I am hopeful for us as a society in coming to terms with our monster that isthe room. I’m not finished with Black Box Society yet and Frank Pasquale shows that he is by no means resigned to the current status quo. He is cognizant of the hurdles we face in confronting our self-created beasts which we steadily feed with more detailed personal data and he has ideas about how to both tame the beasts and counter our patterns of surrender which appear to be spreading rather than abating. Resistance to a prevailing network of powers requires a commitment to discovery, learning, challenging and acting – in concert with many others, and not just individually. It means getting educated: striding from not seeing, to not knowing, to gradually comprehending, to sharing the findings, building awareness and also acting on that new knowledge. It’s not like in the movies. There will be no sweeping revolution that lends itself to being captured in a two-hour cinematic treatment. The path of deliberate resistance tends to be slower and more fragmented; measured in increments rather than dramatic leaps. This is how I see my connection to Pasquale’s work: as part of my discovery and learning process; not quick, but substantive and valuable.
At the very least I can offer two highly recommendable reads this summer, on vacation or off:
Frank Pasquale, Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2015.
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury 1997.