Here is an interesting and slightly scary thought. What is currently going on (in the world of Big Data) is a process of datafication (as distinct from digitisation). The secret to using Big Data is first constructing a datafied map of the world you operate within. A datafied map is a bit like a geological map, in that it is comprised of many layers, each one of which is a relevant dataset. Algorithms are what you then use to create the connections between the layers of this map and thus understand, or shape, the topography of your world. (This is basically Big Data in a nutshell).
In this respect, algorithms are a bit like genes. They are the little, hidden bits of code which none-the-less play a fundamental role in shaping the overall organism – be that organism ‘brand world’, ‘consumer world’, ‘citizen world’ or ‘The Actual World’ (i.e. society) – whatever world it is that has been datafied in the first place. This is slightly scary, given that we are engaged in a sort of reverse human genome project at the moment: instead of trying to discover and expose these algorithmic genes and highlight their effects, the people making them are doing their best to hide them and cover their traces. I have a theory that none of the people who really understand Big Data are actually talking about it – because if they did they are afraid someone will tell them to stop. The only people giving the presentations on Big Data at the moment are small data people sensing a Big Business Opportunity.
But what gets more scary is if you marry this analogy (OK, it is only an analogy) to the work of Richard Dawkins. It would be a secular marriage obviously. Dawkins’ most important work in the field of evolutionary biology was defining the concept of the selfish gene. This idea proposed (in fact proved I believe) that Darwin (or Darwinism) was not quite right in focusing on the concept of survival of the fittest, in that the real battle for survival was not really occuring between individual organisms, but between the genes contained within those organisms. The fate of the organism was largely a secondary consequence of this conflict.
Apply this idea to a datafied society and you end up in a place where everything that happens in our world becomes a secondary consequence of a hidden struggle for survival between algorithms. Cue Hollywood movie.
On a more immediate / practical level, this is a further reason why the exposure of algorithms and transparency must become a critical component of any regulatory framework for the world of Big Data (the world of the algorithm).