If we consider the scale and reach of these processes, the extraordinary power of the algorithm and its role in mediating our social experience and existence is drawn into sharper focus. Not merely our time and attention, but the the range of choices available to each individual is increasingly channelled through algorithmic systems which sort, filter, search, prioritise, recommend, nudge or otherwise engage our senses. The role of algorithms in society has therefore risen to prominence, both within public discussion, and as an object of academic inquiry. Given the ever-expanding ‘internet of everything,’ it is increasingly difficult to identify any sphere of our economic, industrial, social, political and our home and family life, that remains untouched by the power of data-driven, algorithmic systems, with profound and often deeply troubling implications.
Although an algorithm is merely a set of steps for solving a problem, the term is now commonly used to refer to computational algorithms encoded in software programs. To those of us without highly technical expertise, algorithms are opaque, inscrutable ‘black boxes’: beyond our capacity to comprehend due to the sophisticated mathematical processes upon which they rely and, in many cases, their protection from disclosure by intellectual property law. Yet the power of algorithmic systems across contemporary industrialised societies is fuelling concerns about the need for ‘algorithmic accountability’ given their capacity to inform and increasingly to automate decision-making power, often with highly consequential effects. Debates about the way in which algorithms mediate and regulate our social world touch upon some of the most pressing dilemmas and conflicts of digitalized, late modern societies: the future of democracy, individual freedom and the rule of law, widening social and economic inequality, ecological sustainability and the foundations of trust in contemporary societies. Understanding and critically reflecting upon the constitutional, political, social, economic and moral implications of the use of algorithmic systems is therefore essential: both as a prerequisite for understanding the choices and potential directions available to modern societies in seeking to shape and respond to technological and social change, and to ensure that we can establish and maintain legitimate and effective mechanisms for securing algorithmic accountability.