“Blame the algorithm”: the new mantra of social irresponsibility

Computer says no! is the mantra that one of Little Britain’s most famous characters, Carol Beer, the artificially-intelligent banker repeats every time a customer asks her an out-of-the-ordinary question.

Those who – like me – are old enough, have lost count of how many times a clerk working for a public or private entity answered alike – in terms and tones – Carol Beer. Computer says no, it is computer’s fault; the computer does not allow this task to be performed… these reactions are but a way to partake the  software designers (and their masters) from the liability of having built a crappy software. A machine that in its stupid rigidity would not allow doing what the user is asking—an extremely convenient way to ensure that nobody pays for the inefficiencies, delays and follies of bureaucracy.

Technological evolution changed the mantra: today it is no longer the “computer” but the algorithm to take the blame. Do the criteria for calculating the cost of Trenitalia tickets crumble? It is the algorithm’s fault. Will artificial intelligence (sigh!) decide for us? It is the algorithm’s fault.

Topologically, the mantra remains always the same: the “fault” is of a machine, of a logical construct or an inanimate entity for which there is little to do: science and technology are gods that we cannot control and that will destroy us.

It is the approach, for example, historically followed by the Data Protection Authority who never misses an opportunity to point the finger at this or that “dangerous” technology for fundamental rights, forgetting that the person responsible for an event is always and only a human being.

On this collective amnesia is based the impunity enjoyed by software houses and firmware manufacturers: did you lose your data because of a software bug? Buy version 2.0. Did they pierce your network because there was a backdoor in the firewall? Pay, and we’ll sell you the version without “backdoor”. Can you log in from multiple locations with the same user? It is a feature, not a defect!

On this collective amnesia is enough the hypocrisy of politicians and institutions who, instead of invoking the punishment of those who commit offences, criminalize “the web”, “socials”, “apps”. That, being inanimate objects, cannot defend themselves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *