One has to be careful with words like “algorithm.” A term once used mostly by mathematicians is now common parlance; people worldwide are aware that Facebook, for example, uses an algorithm to serve up content from our friends and families every day. An algorithm might be the reason you see a particular ad based on your demographics and online habits. But the word is becoming overused to signal anything that has to do with technology, and I also fear I’ve been using it out of bitterness lately.
Most recently, you see, algorithms came to my mind because I had the distinct sense I was being called upon to be one.
Algorithm (n): a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.
In a marketing role, I followed sets of rules to make sure goals were achieved: business rules that governed which bits of data to keep and which to discard so the database could be kept clean; innate common-sense rules to target precisely the right people for laser-focused email campaigns.
While working quickly with a low margin for error, I sometimes felt like the process itself rather than a human carrying out the process. The goal was to execute this flawlessly, like a search engine returning just the right answer to a query. My comfort zone was stretched and my reasoning abilities challenged – both good things – but my pesky humanity got in the way of the level of exactness that was required.
It turns out that canvassing for Jim Johnson, the candidate who spoke to me the most in the New Jersey primary election, was a way to get both near and far enough from the professional setback to make sense of it.
The actions involved weren’t very different than sorting through a list of leads in order to categorize them, although there was a wonderful hamstring-stretching walk in between addresses. A clearly established set of rules determined what I marked on the canvass packet: not home, refused, undecided, or supporting [candidate].
Maybe a program could do something like this, but as a person, I was able to address the concerns of a woman who said she might be able to volunteer but had recently broken her foot (phone banking only, please); a man who said he wouldn’t be voting for anyone because his friends were hiding from deportation and no one was helping, someone who needed to be told where to see a recording of the latest debate.
I could notice the local color of a block – the stickers showing support for a police or teacher’s union, or, in a more frivolous sense, the paintings on mailboxes or pocket gardens lining the streets on a sizzling day in May. Not all these interstitials led to greater insight, but I think they helped broaden the picture.
Technology is something I love, but my right brain continually runs up against the hard wall of its the need for exactness, its low tolerance for errors. Even my left brain craves more structure when it comes to the way I am trained. I think both sides would be happy if I were in a supportive, communal space where ideas could be tested and there was reassurance that a mistake was just a step toward greater discovery.
I’m still searching for this place.