3 min read

A Day Without Algorithms

To those who want to regulate search engines, ban traffic-light cameras, and otherwise crack down on algorithmic decision-making and automation: Careful what you wish for.

so that they can use the carpool lane, but he then realizes those lanes won't be any better now that the city has abandoned congestion pricing.

Finally reaching the job center, he takes a number and sits down. It's a long wait because case workers are having a hard time manually matching up applicants' skills with job openings. Bob took a little French in high school, and he briefly entertains the thought of becoming a translator, having heard that there are lots of jobs in that field since Google Translate was shut down. It could be worse, he thinks. Many of his former co-workers are now elevator operators.

With no luck at the job center, Bob stops for lunch. McDonald's is out of hamburgers, the cashier explains, because its suppliers underestimated the amount of beef customers would demand this month. He tries to order a fish sandwich, but his credit card is declined. He calls the credit card company and discovers thousands of dollars in phony charges. This kind of fraud seems to be happening frequently now that his card no longer offers automatic fraud detection.

Next, Bob heads to the pharmacy. He picks up his prescription, oblivious to the fact that there's a new drug that's less expensive and more effective for his age group. Unfortunately, his insurance company doesn't tell him that kind of thing anymore. As he leaves the building, it begins to rain. He didn't bring an umbrella because there wasn't a cloud in the sky this morning, and the National Weather Service is useless because it no longer issues forecasts.

Short on cash, he heads to the bank to apply for a line of credit. The exhausted-looking loan officer says Bob is a good candidate with a solid credit history, but there's a backlog from all the manual processing. He'll hear back in a few months.

He returns to his car, only to find that the power has gone out in the parking lot. As he heads home, he learns on the radio that there are cascading power failures in the city. This sort of thing used to happen years ago, he thinks, before the smart grid. How times have reverted since the electricity grid was made dumb again.

Arriving home hungry, damp, and discouraged, Bob decides to unwind with a movie. He picks one with an interesting description but ends up turning it off after half an hour. Too bad he can't get good movie recommendations anymore.

Bob's rough day might be imaginary, but the reality of banishing algorithms and automation is far from the utopian dream that some imagine. Predictions, recommendations, and personalization make people's lives easier and richer, often in ways that go unnoticed. Rather than controlling us, algorithms give us more freedom to pursue happy and productive lives. As we build our future, we should remember that a world without algorithms is a world we would hardly recognize.

Daniel Castro is director of the Center for Data Innovation, and Travis Korte is a research analyst with the Center.

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