Q&A with technology author and journalist Luke Dormehl
Author of The Formula explains what inspired him to write about algorithms – and how they affect our daily lives
By Alice Atkinson Bonasio Posted on 17 June 2014
Luke Dormehl (@lukedormehl) is an author, journalist and filmmaker who writes for a variety of technology publications, including Wired, The Observer/Guardian, Cult of Mac and Fast Company. The Formula, published by Penguin Random House is his third book, and examines how algorithms impact our daily lives.
After his recent presentation for Talks@Mendeley, Dormehl was interviewed by Alice Atkinson-Bonasio (in person, then via email) about what had inspired him to tackle the complex subject of algorithms "from an outsider's perspective" and how he found the experience of talking about the subject to the technology-savvy crowd at Mendeley.
What is your book about, and what made you decide to write it?
The Formula is a book about what algorithms are doing to life as we know it. I explore everything from law (predictive policing) and identity (ourselves according to Google), to relationships (Internet dating) and creativity (Epagogix: a company that claims to be able to predict movie box office figures before the films in question are even made), to look at not just the algorithmisation of every field of human endeavour, but also the implications of our total faith in algorithms to give us the answers that we're looking for.
What are a few of the implications of our "total faith in algorithms?" Can it be misleading or even dangerous?
There are specific situations where relying on the verdict of an algorithm could be dangerous. For instance, algorithms designed to detect early stage disease or predict crime are not always infallible. However, there's a bigger question, too. Increasingly our reliance on black box algorithms means eschewing complex "understanding" for easy answers — which poses a number of ethical questions going forwards.
How did your background as a tech journalist and documentary filmmaker influence your choice of subject?
I'm interested in popular culture — and I think if you're interested in popular culture here in 2014, you have to be interested in computer science, since it plays such a vital role in our lives.
What are the most interesting examples you came across during your research that illustrate the impact that algorithms have in our lives nowadays.
One that springs to mind was the reaction afforded Twitter when the Occupy Wall Street movement failed to trend using its measurement system for determining what is newsworthy and relevant in our lives. It's something of a signal moment when algorithms are given this role.
Algorithms also dictate a lot of the entertainment we enjoy as a culture, since increasingly, Hollywood studios and record labels employ these tools to help them determine future hits.
Was there any particular aspect of your research that surprised you?
Probably how widespread these algorithmic solutions are, and how the belief in technological neutrality/objectivity goes back so far. I trace some sort of algorithmic thinking back at least as far as the 19th century — and many ideas go back further still. Can you give examples of a few of these?
Why did you decide to speak at Talks@Mendeley?
I was excited about the opportunity to discuss these ideas with a group of people who grapple with these issues on a daily basis. So much of my work involves interviewing people who work in tech and then going away to formulate my own conclusions to share with readers. This completed the feedback loop, so to speak.
Are you a Mendeley user yourself?
I am, although I need to spend more time exploring what it is that you've created. I'm impressed by how intuitive the tools are, though.
What research methodology do you use when gathering materials for your books and articles?
It's a sideways approach to the answer, but seeing what it is that you're working on at Mendeley makes me more aware than ever of the need for good recommender systems in academic publishing. I tend to work in a very traditional way: pick up a key text or two and then dive into its bibliography to expand my search parameters. As a journalist, it's all about "connecting the dots" between disciplines (as Steve Jobs would say), and this can be a real challenge.
What are your thoughts following the discussion and questions at the Mendeley talk?
My overwhelming reaction was that it was great to see that these issues are ones that people working in tech engage with. There were also some questions (specifically about the legal implications of algorithms) that made me want to go away and do more research.
What are your next projects and plans?
I'm interested in delving into the history of AI (artificial intelligence), and I'm currently exploring that as a possible book. Beyond that, I want to continue writing for The Observer, The Sunday Times, Fast Company, Wired and Cult of Mac. Between those, I get to cover a lot of the technology developments that interest me.
Has your book been well received? What interest have you had from the press and are you planning any other talks and events?
I hoped that this would be a book that would have wide appeal, and I've been lucky so far in having the opportunity to speak with everyone from tech experts (like yourselves at Mendeley) to Steve Wright on (BBC) Radio 2. I'm very much looking forward to giving future talks as well. This was my first real public speaking experience — so I thank you all for going easy on me. ;)
Elsevier Connect Contributor
Alice Atkinson-Bonasio (@alicebonasio) is PR and Communications Manager for Mendeley, the company that created the Mendeley research collaboration platform and workflow tool and was acquired by Elsevier in April. She holds an MA in creative and media enterprises from the University of Warwick and is completing a PhD in online marketing at Bournemouth University. She is based in Mendeley's London office.
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