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When algorithms make the choices for us

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This illustration photo shows the Spotify logo on a smartphone.

This illustration photo shows the Spotify logo on a smartphone in Washington, DC, on January 31, 2022. - Shares of Spotify tumbled Wednesday after the music streaming service -- roiled in controversy over its star podcaster Joe Rogan -- projected lower profit margins in the coming earnings period as subscriber growth slows. The company reported solid increases in the fourth quarter in terms of monthly active users and 180 million premium subscribers, in line with earlier forecasts. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds / AFP) (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images) Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

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When looking for new music, it’s easy to let a streaming service’s algorithm recommend songs similar to music you already like.

Those types of algorithms that shape our “digital lives” are the focus of “The Loop: How Technology Is Creating a World Without Choices and How to Fight Back,” a book by NBC News tech correspondent Jacob Ward.

He spoke with Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams on how a lot of behavioral science goes into helping algorithms hack our brains. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jacob Ward: The technology that companies are using to figure out what you and I might be interested in next is very much just a pattern-recognition system. And if behavioral science has taught us anything, it’s that those instinctive decisions that we make tend to fall into patterns. You know, there is a higher, smarter kind of human consciousness that I think we are all really proud of, but it turns out companies are not interested in selling to that consciousness. They would much rather sell to the predictable, ancient systems that we’re not even aware of.

Kimberly Adams: One of the examples that struck me was this idea that we used to kind of use our life influences and our experience to shape our taste in music, and now an algorithm does it for us.

Ward: It was really one of the big shockers for me. I mean, I used to be the kind of person who made mixes for people, and I could tell you everything about this or that band. These days, when somebody asks me, “Oh, what do you listen to these days?” I just say, “You know, I have no idea,” that the Spotify recommendation algorithm has me in its grip. This is one of the lessons of the loop is that it’s not just that this, you know, technology is stepping in for our critical faculties. It’s really, really effective, and the long-term effects of that, I worry, might outweigh the short-term conveniences of it.

Adams: Well, how do you push back against that or regulate around it? Because we do live in a capitalist society and people will throw money at things that make money. So then how do you shift that paradigm?

Ward: I think that we have to, as a society, grapple with what I think is going to be the biggest question of our day, which is: What is the difference between being addicted to something that is good for you and addicted to something that is bad for you? Well, let’s take addictive use of technology. Right now, you have companies that are using extremely specific targeting measures to find people who are most susceptible to things like online simulators of the casino experience. So I think if we can get to a more transparent place where companies who are playing with our unconscious impulses have to share some of the ways that they do the marketing and the analysis and the prediction, well, I think we might arrive at a place where we can see a path toward regulating that as more than just the sort of open-ended, Wild West sort of environment we’ve been operating in until now.

You can check out an excerpt from “The Loop” here, with more on how algorithms are influencing parenting.

We also chatted about how algorithms can shape our musical tastes. The Guardian has a story about how Spotify’s recommendation engine temporarily promoted anti-vaccine songs for people’s playlists. I’m talking about specific songs (which have since taken down), not certain podcasts with a track record of promoting misinformation (which are still there). 

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