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Radio review: The Real Story: Can algorithms be trusted?, Designing a World for Everyone, and You’re Dead to Me

29 November 2019


WHAT have we learned from the Cambridge Analytica scandal? That our behaviour and instincts can be predicted by the colour-scheme of our Instagram photos and the frequency with which we use the semi-colon? Or that there are snake-oil salesmen out there prepared to make such claims? If we believed everything we heard in The Real Story: Can algorithms be trusted? (World Service, Saturday), then our fates are as predetermined as if we were numbered among the 144,000.

Already, systems are running in parts of the world which predict whether you could be a benefit fraudster or at risk of mental breakdown. They rely on the analysis of vast data sets; but also, crucially, on people to set the systems running and interpret the results. As Matthias Spielkamp from AlgorithmWatch pointed out, before you set an algorithm going, you need someone who thinks that this is an appropriate manner by which to investigate benefit fraud or mental health.

Unsurprisingly, China is leading the way in algorithm-driven social policy, with a credit system which ranks its citizens according to such criteria as how swiftly you pay bills. A higher ranking gains you access to better services, and might be the difference between whether you are allowed to fly business or cattle class.

This nightmarish vision of a world in which our thoughts are accessible to big business and the even bigger state is many miles away from the ambitions of the early internet, and those in the 1980s and ’90s who were preoccupied with Designing a World for Everyone (Radio 4, Monday of last week). The subject of this documentary was Pattie Moore, the design guru who, as a 26-year-old, embarked on an investigation of what it was like to be an octogenarian — by disguising herself as one, and travelling to more than 100 cities.

This was 1979, and not only were policies of public access far less developed. Pattie’s perambulations were made wearing a mask which inhibited hearing and vision in a manner that was entirely authentic; and the result was a depth of experience which has enriched her work ever since.

Much of this, however, we had to take on trust, as the presenter, Jeremy Myerson, seemed to assume that we already knew about Ms Moore’s various design innovations, and how such insights as she gained were then shaped into today’s artefacts. In that respect, the programme failed the Dragon’s Den test of explaining itself.

The concept behind the BBC podcast You’re Dead to Me (BBC Sounds, released each Friday) is simple enough: history made “fun” by the inclusion of a comedian alongside a real historian. In last week’s episode, on the history of General Elections, the poor historian was no doubt wondering why she had not been booked for In Our Time instead of having to put up with the occasional “Wow!” from her fellow guest, followed by some joke about how stupid and misogynistic people were back in olden times. This listener didn’t make it out of the 18th century before pressing delete.




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