When Algorithms Trump

The other day I was sent this as an Amazon recommendation:


For those outside the UK I think it’s worth explaining two things:

  1. Ed Miliband is a former leader of a political party, he’s a former leader because he wasn’t very successful and lost to David Cameron (who you may have heard of).
  2. To “trump” has a number of meanings over here, one of which is to break wind usually audibly, I’ve not suddenly taken to politics on this site.

I am pretty sure that Amazon recommendations are created by algorithms without any intervention from a person. They must send millions of these emails every day, so there is no way that people get involved. A set of machines operate a recommendation engine and squirt out the emails.

The aim of recommendation engines is to suggest something that you are likely to buy, they do this via correlation of buying habits, demographics, connections, etc. Thus, somewhere in the middle of that algorithm is a correlation between my buying habits, demographics, etc. and someone who purchased a signed autographed photo of a former leader of the Labour Party. In this case the recommendation engine has produced a trump, is slightly humorous noise. I don’t have anything against Ed, but I don’t want a signed autograph picture of him on my wall, this recommendation is a passing of wind.

We recently purchased some new cooking utensils and the other recommendations in this email are all to do with that purchase, so perhaps Ed Miliband supporters are people who like good quality stainless steel also. I’m not sure that’s enough of a correlation to be of value.

This is a frivolous example of an algorithm trump but as algorithms come to run more of our lives the consequences become more significant.

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