February 6, 2023

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Algorithms and Memories – When the Cell Phone Opens Old Wounds

Digitization comes with it: we can hardly save ourselves from memories on the web, in apps and timelines. What started as a photo app is everywhere today.

Spotify breaks down what we’ve been listening to this year. Ads remind us what we’re watching at every turn, and even delivery service apps now have an annual review showing us how many times we’ve decided not to cook something ourselves. How did that actually happen?

The platforms are booming with interest

Lajla Fetic, co-director From the “Ethics of Algorithms” project of the Bertelsmann FoundationHe explains it this way: “Basically, developers of Google products have noticed that images lead a lonely, dreary life and are rarely looked at.” And further: “Google thought in this vein: we can draw attention to our products with this augmentation of those old memories that would otherwise gather dust.”

So, like a lot of other things on the internet, it’s all about attention, which then turns into money. Whether it’s because it reminds you of Google products and doesn’t go over the competition, or because many share their annual streaming review and thus advertise the company for free.

“For most providers of these retrospectives, it doesn’t matter if people are infected,” says Leila Vitek, referring to the fact that the app offers happy photos from old relationships or photos of pets who have died. “What matters is the interest it generates.”

uniform life

This is also due to the fact that only assumed ideals are generally applied during planning, Lajla Fetic explains. At this point, the algorithmic code is based on a “normative idea of ​​life”.

The problem is that the standard human does not exist, nor is it possible to predict how a person will react. While one person may be overwhelmed with grief upon encountering a deceased loved one, another person may rejoice.

However, it is important that “technology serves people and society and that we do not subject ourselves to technology,” says Lajla Vitek. When in doubt, algorithms should be regulated so that people are not left alone with digital self-defense against corporations worth billions.

Commercial orientation can be a burden

He says the fact that people stumble across memorabilia on stands as part of a trade show can be even more stressful. Communication researcher Christian Benzold of the University of Leipzig. “In the end, it’s a strange space in which we move, in which we have profiles and save our photos. In the end, we agreed that these photos no longer belong to us, but we transfer and reprocess them,” describes the basic problem.

Through processes controlled by algorithms, users can also find things they previously did not associate with their past. Because, unlike an analog picture or other randomly appearing object, a display on platforms may have been created by others, “but then we encounter it for the first time in memory,” explains Christian Benzold.

Continuously recorded daily life

We humans – and this is part of our cultural history – have always built things, texts, images and materials that we use to remember. It always brings us closer to a piece of the past and helps us visualize the past. But what we observe now is a complete record of daily life. Everyday life that can appear again and again, even beyond our control.

Christian Pentzold

Many people’s lives are now being lived very intensely with these platforms. This made it very difficult for users to forget things they might want to forget, Pentzold said. “We have to keep in mind that always remembering means that we are also capable of forgetting things.”