We should not be slaves to the algorithm

Instead of speaking the dry language of the arithmocracy and its algorithms we should embrace emotion, spontaneity and raw instinct.

Anthony Tasgal

How did all of us in the persuasion and presentation industries become a community of deck-heads?

Obsessed with the quantity of charts, the volume of slides and the amount of content (data, information, messaging) we can cram into any given time period, we are becoming less effective communicators and creating a landfill of attention spam: material that our attentional filter automatically screens as TBU (true but useless) before it even stands a chance of denting our consciousness.

We all know we do this, but how can we stop it?

I see this as a symptom of what I call the ‘arithmocracy’, a pernicious system that could become our default monoculture.

It has its origins in FW Taylor’s scientific management, which led to the monotony of Fordism, and is based on ideas of control, power and uniformity.

We are becoming slaves to the algorithm, hurtling towards a culture where everything from the NHS to education is driven by league tables and metrics. From the City to the police to the creation and evaluation of marketing comms, everything is fed into a system of measurement, prediction and control fuelled by arithmocrats who are part accountant, part engineer and part spreadsheet but largely devoid of emotion and instinct.

In scientific circles, this is known as ‘physics envy’, the need for all human behaviour to aspire to the absolute predictability and certainty of atoms in the realm of classical physics.

The arithmocracy derives its power not through intelligence, craft or judgement but by means of its access to and control of numbers, many of them large and largely spurious.

Big Data for all its richness may just leave us mired in and bogged down by more metrics, KPIs and ROIs, substituting safety in numbers for insight and decisiveness: a form of Bog Data if you like. As Douglas Adams noted of the universe: space is big. Really big.

The body of evidence gathered loosely under the heading of Behavioural Economics should once and for all make it unarguable that human behaviour cannot and should not be modelled on physics and economics, with its belief in the ‘homo economicus’, a purely rational and consistent entity whose first thought on waking is "how shall I maximise my utility today?"

The strength of this characterisation is that it is enticingly susceptible to mathematical modelling and rational analysis; its weakness is that it is almost entirely fictitious.

Somehow we have allowed psychology and human agency to be shackled in the chains of the arithmocracy.

Instead we need to embrace – and not fear – emotion, spontaneity and our gut instincts: in the terms popularised by Daniel Kahneman, we need to accept the power of System 1 (the adaptive unconscious) over System 2 (the post-rationalising interpreter) and stop treating messy, confabulating, unpredictable and inconsistent people as ‘consumers’, whose behaviours can be modelled and predicted at the individual or even macro level.

Anthony Tasgal is the founder of POV and a course director for the Chartered Institute of Marketing

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