The Human Algorithm … a digital anthropological view of how technology is changing the way in which we engage with each other, business, and the world

March 2, 2023

ChatGPT has dominated the tech headlines of recent months. The OpenAI interface has become a symbol of progress for the ways in which knowledge is evolving, and challenging human minds.

Of course AI is all around us. Wake up to check your health on your Apple Watch. Click on the weather forecast. Or just ask Siri. Jump in your car, and Google Maps becomes your intelligent navigator, using realtime traffic data to find the best route.

At very least, ChatGPT, which was only ever meant to be a prototype to test human engagement, has alerted to the way in which AI is challenging the human brain. Yes of course, it can source and synthesise huge amounts of information, and quantum computing will accelerate that millions of times faster.

But it still struggles to think, to imagine, to create. That, so far, is still a human quality, isn’t it?

Humans and technology

Digital anthropology focuses on the relationship between humans and today’s broad range of technologies – from computing and robotics, mobile phones and gaming, data and AI, crypto and NFTs.

How do people engage with these technologies? What are the ethics? Who is in control?

One of my expert faculty at IE Business School is Verónica Reyero, a social anthropologist and founder Anthropologia 2.0. She has spent many years exploring the field, and helping business leaders to make sense of this changing world.

In a recent discussion, we started by reflecting on society’s obsession today with social media. “Why do people post?”. What drives people to share every moment of their lives with the world. The millions of photos posted, popularity measured in likes. The influence of people on each other, the shift in trust from institution to community, the rise of tribes across traditional boundaries.

A great insight into this topic comes from UCL Why we post research project

Three factors dominated our discussion

  • Identity – how we build our identity in a digital world – how we present ourselves, and how others perceive us.
  • Relationships – how we connect with each other – our chosen communities, and equally as societies, nations and tribes.
  • Value – how we decide the worth of products and services – of time, of connections, of possessions.

As examples, why pay $6000 for a pair of Nike RTFKT CrytoKick virtual sneakers, to wear on your Fortnite avatar, but which you will never wear in the real world?

Digital anthropologists

Most anthropologists who use the phrase “digital anthropology” are specifically referring to online technology. The study of humans’ relationship to a broader range of technology may fall under other subfields of anthropological study, such as cyborg anthropology.

The Digital Anthropology Group (DANG) is classified as an interest group in the American Anthropological Association. DANG’s mission includes promoting the use of digital technology as a tool of anthropological research, encouraging anthropologists to share research using digital platforms, and outlining ways for anthropologists to study digital communities.

Cyberspace itself can serve as a “field” site for anthropologists, allowing the observation, analysis, and interpretation of the sociocultural phenomena springing up and taking place in any interactive space.

National and transnational communities, enabled by digital technology, establish a set of social norms, practices, traditions, storied history and associated collective memory, migration periods, internal and external conflicts, potentially subconscious language features and memetic dialects comparable to those of traditional, geographically confined communities. This includes the various communities built around free and open-source software, online platforms such as 4chan and Reddit and their respective sub-sites, and politically motivated groups like Anonymous, WikiLeaks, or the Occupy movement.

A number of academic anthropologists have conducted traditional ethnographies of virtual worlds, such as Bonnie Nardi’s study of World of Warcraft or Tom Boellstorff’s study of Second Life.

Anthropological research can help designers adapt and improve technology. Australian anthropologist Genevieve Bell did extensive user experience research at Intel that informed the company’s approach to its technology, users, and market.

Human algorithms

“A Human Algorithm: How Artificial Intelligence Is Redefining Who We Are” is a 2019 non-fiction book by American international human rights attorney Flynn Coleman. It argues that, in order to manage the power shift from humans to increasingly advanced artificial intelligence, it will be necessary to instil human values into AI, and to proactively develop oversight mechanisms.

Coleman argues that the algorithms underlying AI could greatly improve the human condition, if the algorithms are carefully based on ethical human values. An ideal AI would be “not a replicated model of our own brains, but an expansion of our lens and our vantage point as to what intelligence, life, meaning, and humanity are and can be.” Failure in this regard might leave us “a species without a purpose”, lacking “any sense of happiness, meaning, or satisfaction”. She states that despite stirrings of an “algorithmic accountability movement”, humanity is “alarmingly unready” for the arrival of more powerful forms of AI.

To realize AI’s transcendent potential, Coleman advocates for inviting a diverse group of voices to participate in designing our intelligent machines and using our moral imagination to ensure that human rights, empathy, and equity are core principles of emerging technologies.

Accelerating change

One thing is certain. Tech will only increase in its pace of disruption, adoption and impact.

We will see the evolution of space exploration, from NASA’s Artemis mission, humans landing on Mars, and the interplanetary internet system going online. To the launch of the Starshot Alpha Centauri program, and quantum computers designing plants that can survive on Mars. On Earth, tech evolves with quantum computers and Neaulink chips.

People will begin living with bio-printed organs. Humans record every part of lives from birth. And inner speech recording becomes possible. And what about predictions further out into the future, when humans become level 2 and level 3 civilizations.

When NASA’s warp drive goes live, and Mars declares independence from Earth. Will there be Dyson structures built around stars to capture their energy. Will they help power computers that can take human consciousness and download it into a quantum computer core. Allowing humanity to travel further out into space.

More from the blog