Algorithms in Domestic Life: Can Human’s Behaviors be Represented, Modified and Influenced Through Mathematical Models?

This research project examines the implications of algorithms on our domestic and everyday lives both today and in the near-future. What are the motivations behind the massive development and application of algorithms on our domestic lives and what do we, as consumers, expect and want from these?

The use of algorithms to predict, control or modify human behaviours is not a new phenomenon. Historical examples include the attempt by the Chilean government between 1970-1973 to establish a real-time, computer-controlled economy via the Cybersyn project; the organisation of modern cities using computer modelling in the 70’s – for example, the attempt to efficiently place fire stations in New York through the use of mathematical models – or the prevention of air attacks, by both Russian and American governments during the Cold War. These algorithms were exclusively developed by governments and defence agencies. It is only recently that their use has shifted towards our everyday lives. With rapid developments in computer technologies, the rise of the Internet and, above all, a huge increase in the accumulation and sharing of data, the use of algorithms becomes ubiquitous. They will soon be able to drive our cars, take care of our health and food diet, know our wishes and desires better than we do and take an active part in our decision-making process in order to optimally shape our behaviour.

The important point about the shift from a professional to a domestic domain is the ignorance of users about how these algorithms operate and their limits as they are “black boxed”. Yet they attain a quasi status of “gods” or “oracles” from which humans seek advices and answers. Algorithms treat our most complex and human difficulties like any other mathematical problem.

What is the ethical limit in which algorithms become too pervasive and intrusive? While they are essential in various situations of our modern world – for instance the selection and retrieval of digital information -, their implementation is not always justified.

These questions will be explored through practice based design research building on the methods of speculative and critical design. Given that algorithms are invisible entities, the project will develop ways to make their function visible and comprehensible to a general and non-expert audience with the aim of generating discussion and a better understanding of the potential impact of algorithms on our domestic lives.