by Professor Lim Sun Sun, Singapore Management University
With the onward march of technologization, digital skills have firmly established themselves as needs and not wants. The bruising pandemic of the last two years fiercely accelerated the adoption of digital services in government, banking, healthcare, education, entertainment and retail. Indeed, no realm of daily life has been untouched by digitalisation. Within Southeast Asia, the pressure is on to ramp up the digital literacy of citizens so that they can fully benefit from digitalisation and connectivity, but are concurrently safeguarded from online risks such as scams and disinformation.
As the list of must-have digital skills continues to expand, we need to add to it algorithmic literacy – being aware of the existence, application and implications of algorithms in the digital platforms we interact with.
Algorithms are essentially rules that instruct computer hardware and software on how to perform automated tasks. When we go online, we interact with a mind-boggling array of algorithms, often without realising it. Scrolling through our social media feeds, looking up locations on an online map, shopping for the deepest online discounts, booking a taxi during rush hour – all of these tasks involve algorithms retrieving and analysing data to present options that best meet our needs. The algorithms undergirding the digital services we use work quietly and swiftly to fulfil our requests, supported by computational power and refined by big data.
Notwithstanding their value, the fact that algorithms are effectively invisible can present issues for users. In most cases, we cannot observe nor comprehend how they function. Due to this lack of understanding, we can feel frustrated and even shortchanged when digital services fail to deliver exactly what we want or expect. Doubts about the fairness and reliability of algorithmically-driven systems can then arise.
As a result, consumers may engage in speculations about such systems. In one case, for example, a customer posted a TikTok video alleging discrepancies in Grab’s pricing model. This video went viral and attracted comments from other customers who claimed fares were lower when manually entering their destinations, rather than when selecting them from saved locations on their accounts. In response, Grab explained that fare differences reflected demand and supply conditions and were not dependent on whether locations were previously saved or not. Grab also published an explainer on how trips and orders are matched with drivers and delivery-partners.
Squarely and openly addressing consumer concerns in this way helps to heighten transparency about how algorithms work and demystifies them for the public. Importantly, more technology companies should engage in proactive public education about how the algorithms for their most popular services work, and the design choices underlying their systems architecture.
In this regard, companies such as Grab, Google, Microsoft and TikTok have provided what can be labelled as ‘algorithmic explainers’ on their platforms. These explainers, if written and illustrated well, while presenting vital information in an accessible and engaging manner, can go a long way towards building consumers’ algorithmic literacy.
Above all, algorithmic explainers can help engender consumer trust in digital systems by accentuating perceptions of fairness and accountability. In a world where many of our interactions and transactions are technologically-mediated, consumer trust is paramount and companies must strive to earn it.
Algorithmic explainers may seem like modest efforts in public education but are in fact critical drivers of consumers’ digital literacy. With more companies and government agencies increasingly deploying algorithms in their customer-facing systems, algorithmic explainers should be standard best practice for all organizations and not just those in the technology sector.
Lim Sun Sun is Professor of Communication and Technology and Vice President, Partnerships and Engagement at the Singapore Management University. She has researched and written extensively on the social impact of technology and authored Transcendent Parenting: Raising Children in the Digital Age (Oxford University Press, 2020). For more information, see www.sunsunlim.com.