July 25, 2011, 10:29 AM — Google helps us think, Facebook finds us friends, and Pandora plays our own personalized soundtrack. It's hard to say whether the computer algorithms that these services use to anticipate our needs and wants are turning us into puppets or geniuses. But algorithms have a huge impact on our tastes, buying habits, and decisions about our digital lives.
Back in the 20th century--the primordial age of algorithms--life was simpler and harder at the same time. We never knew what else we might want to buy at Amazon; we didn't know what the most "important" news stories of the day were; and before the Netflix movie recommendation engine, we had no mechanized assistance in determining which DVD to rent next.
When we're looking for something online, Google's algorithm frees us from having to sort and search through multitudes of only not-very-relevant results. On the other hand, algorithms might trap us in a world where advertisers and government agencies couple behavioral data with computer formulas to predict and manipulate what we do or buy next.
The technological trend toward ever-more-sophisticated algorithms isn't limited to situations where consumers seek information or products. Private companies and government agencies are also harnessing the power of algorithms to boost their efficiency in dealing with inventory control and their effectiveness in monitoring behavior and predicting what a cybercriminal's next move might be.
For algorithm nerds, the Internet is a Candyland of data to model and predict behavior with. Tracking IP addresses across the Net, knowing what websites people visit and when they visit them, counting banner ad clicks, and harvesting data from social networks are much easier than following someone around with a clipboard all day.
Here is a look at some of the algorithms that rule the Web--and those who use them.
Many people credit Google's search algorithm as the source of the company's $193 billion market capitalization and tight grip on the search engine market. As Steven Levy pointed out in a 2010 article on Google "[Google] is still the only company whose name is synonymous with the verb search."