Awful Algorithms

Posted by on 7th Apr 2021

Lenten intentions started off well—no buying books and no eating biscuits for 40 days. I quickly changed the first to no online shopping. I still failed on both counts. In mitigation, I have lost some weight; I never binged on biscuits. Books are another matter.

This month, I started researching Elizabeth Sophia Lawrence as well as books sold in museum shops. Both subjects involved academic textbooks, which are heart-palpitatingly expensive. I keep telling myself—that is it. No more. You have bought more books than you can read this year. And then another subject comes along. And another Jay Rayner cookbook review appears on Sunday morning.

I know I need to pick one subject and devote myself to it. I have read Dickens and Bleak House. I sympathised with Richard Carstone. I read Scott Adams in Tools of Titans and his concept of the double or triple threat. I know trying to do everything just ends in mediocrity. But there is so much fascinating information out there. At least Richard Carstone did not want to be a writer.

Perhaps I will collect books. I fear I will end up with a perfect collection of coffee table books and cookbooks and no living room or kitchen to put them in.

Thankfully, algorithms do not seem to recommend books. All I see are clothes, and tonight a car. Brands know their customers. My online shopping hiatus ended when Boden naughtily sent me a £10 voucher in the post. I could have thrown it away. It is not free money when you spend money you weren't intending to spend.

M&S contributed to my failure with targeted Sparks rewards for discounted knitwear. I know the tactics being used to make me maximise what I spend. I dislike them. Algorithms do not leave room for inspiration or feelings. I do not want to see things I am likely to buy. I want to see beautiful adverts like those in magazines of old. I want to decrease my consumption. I still need to buy some things, such as school uniform.

This year being what it is, Dora has barely worn her uniform and has already grown out of it. To reduce spending and stop online shopping, I had decided to buy the new school uniform in person from Sainsbury’s. Until I learned that Sainsbury’s only have a plan to be ethical. M&S has already put that plan into action. M&S is a bit more expensive, but we cannot just keep talking about sustainability; we have to act sustainably. If we want brands to be ethical rather than just talk about it, we have to vote with our wallets.

The algorithm dictated offer of a bag of Percy Pigs didn't make me buy from M&S. An article in the Telegraph about M&S's ethical cotton policy did.

Can computer algorithms predict ethical behaviour?