Lesson 4: Do algorithms know me better than I know myself?


Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Homo Deus : a Brief History of Tomorrow, states that algorithms might know you “better than you know yourself”.

(Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, 2017).

Watch the video by Yuval Noah Harari and reflect on what it means when algorithmic platforms know us better than we know ourselves.

Attribution: Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. (2017, March 13). Yuval Noah Harari: “An algorithm that knows you better than you know yourself.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vC4FtajN_QY.  For the full transcript and video go here.

Activity 1: Conduct an Amazon experiment

This activity requires an Amazon account. If your students do not have it, modify the activity to use another platform, like Facebook or any other social media platform. 

During this activity, you are invited to pay attention to how Amazon recommender algorithm works specifically for you.

Step 1. Log into your Amazon account and observe for three consecutive days what products Amazon suggests you buy.

Step 2. What are some of the trends you are noticing? Record those trends and any patterns you might have observed.  For instance, are the recommended products related to a specific category or theme? Have you searched for these or similar items in the past on Amazon platform or elsewhere (e.g. Google)?

Step 3. On the fourth day, deliberately search for and find five products that you would never actually purchase. These should be items you have no intention of buying or normally would not be interested in or search for it on other platforms.

Step 4. On the fifth day, log back into your Amazon account and see if the product recommendations have changed in any way. Did Amazon start suggesting different products after you searched for things you’d never buy?

Step 5. Think about what these changes, or lack of changes, mean for you. Do they have any implications? Do you find it interesting that Amazon adjusted its suggestions based on your unusual search?

By following these steps, you can better understand how Amazon’s recommendation system works and how it responds to your online activity. This exercise can also help you reflect on the implications of targeted advertising and product recommendations based on the data you provide to algorithmic systems.

Attribution: This activity has been adapted from Koenig, 2020.

Discussion questions

    1. Do you agree with Yuval Noah Harari that algorithms know you better than you know yourself?
    2. Did Amazon algorithm know you well?
    3. What are some of the benefits of algorithms “knowing” you?
    4. What are the concerns?
    5. Do you agree with the quote by Andrejevic (2020): “Now Google fills out our search requests and finishes our text messages for us, soon, thanks to the combination of data it collects from our online and offline lives, it may know whom we want to vote for, perhaps better than we ourselves do.”  Why or why not?