The Allure of the Algorithm and Why We Should Beware

Google racks up 3 billion searches a day. In 2010, significantly more people voted in an election after Facebook reminded them to get to the polls. And, according to a data study, Facebook can predict when a romantic relationship will start before the couple even knows. With such broad reach and wealth of information, what responsibility do major search engines and social media bear on issues of public safety and our perception of the world?Harvard professor and co-founder and faculty director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society Jonathan Zittrain posed these questions at a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2015.

The Facebook election experiment in 2010 put information such as friends who voted and where to vote at the top of the newsfeeds of 60 million users. According to the journal Nature, about 340,000 extra people voted because of Facebook’s efforts. Zittrain worries about political agendas being set. ”What if Facebook decided that it has a dog in the fight in the next election? There’s somebody it wants to win. Would it be okay to salt the feeds of voters likely to vote for that person with a reminder, and simply be silent for those who would vote for the opponent?”

With Google’s algorithm, called PageRank, Zittrain gave an example of the search query “vaccinate your child.” He says the search brings up a series of links demanding viewers vaccinate and others insisting they not vaccinate. “Is that the right balance?,” Zittrain wonders. “Are we protected by the fact that Google doesn’t know from moment to moment, what’s going to win? Or, does it bear a responsibility as our helper to give us information that is grounded, that we can use.”

To see the full session from Aspen Ideas 2015, click here.

PODCAST: Why Ethics (Usually) Pays

When it comes to the bottom line, corporate social responsibility sometimes pays, but sometimes does not. "There are many temptations to go in a more predatory way," says Jonathan Haidt, a professor at the NYU Stern School of Business. In his Aspen Lecture, Haidt says recent studies back up the notion that creating an ethical culture within your organization and treating your employees well always pays in the long run. Subscribe on iTunes or listen here.

Poetry in Our Cultural Story

Celebrate World Poetry Day, March 21, by watching Poetry in Our Cultural Story: Songs of the Front Yard, Kitchen and Hall. Actor, director, and producer Alfre Woodard joins Elisa New, Harvard professor of American literature to discuss poets Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, and the voice of maternal authority. Woodard reads Brooks: "I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life. / I want a peek at the back / Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows. / A girl gets sick of a rose." Watch here.

From dumpster-dive salads to ugly produce, food waste is garnering attention with elected officials. Here’s what we’re reading ahead of the 2016 Aspen Ideas Festival track “Future of Food: Our Planet, Our Plates.”


Consider This: Most households can cut out 10 to 20 percent of their waste by composting food scraps. And, In September, the Obama administration committed to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030.

Read More about how industrial production has impacted the flavor and nutrition of wheat and farms of the future.