Don Kahle: Calvin and jobs: how algorithms dominate our lives

·3 min read

New York City passed a bill last month that will ban employers from using automated hiring tools unless a yearly bias audit can show that their algorithms won’t discriminate based on an applicant’s race or gender. It’s our nation’s first attempt to regulate those invisible snippets of code that are beginning to rule our lives.

Meanwhile, Oregon in August became the first state to ban so-called “love letters” from prospective homebuyers. Letters from buyers help a seller choose between multiple offers in a hot real estate market. But they also could violate fair housing laws by revealing a buyer’s race, religion, sexual orientation or marital status.

New York wants to preserve humans making hiring decisions. Oregon wants to limit human factors in life-changing financial decisions. Should an employer consider how a hire will fit with co-workers? Should a home seller favor a buyer who is more likely to match the neighborhood? These difficult questions pervade society, just barely beneath the surface.

They became personally relevant last week, as my son and his wife were in the maternity ward at Riverbend Hospital. They were told they could leave with their new little bundle of joy, but things would go easier if “bundle of joy” had a name first.

They had narrowed their choices to about a dozen over the months. They asked friends to offer their opinions or to add more names. They insisted that the child himself should somehow participate in the process, so they purposely delayed their decision until after he appeared to cast his vote. Until last Tuesday, they knew his sex and his kicking ability, but little else.

As an eviction from the hospital became imminent, they chose the name “River.” The name flows easily with no hard stops. It’s an unusual name, but not unheard of. The name would be easy to say around the house or during play dates. They would enjoy having a River around for the next couple of decades.

That lasted about five minutes. (This is important.) Even though “River” had always been included on their Baby Name Bingo card, it wasn’t until they gave the name to the child that they considered how it would shape him. It sounds like a stage name. They began to imagine his first job application or career opportunity. “River” could hurt him.

They switched his name to “Calvin” instead. It sounded more serious. Being named after a philosopher who shaped the American imagination isn’t so bad, whether it was a dour French theologian or a mischievous character from the comics page.

How will it go for Calvin in a world that’s dominated by algorithms? He will grow into his name because the world will make assumptions about him. They’ll often know his name before they meet him. That might not be the fairest way to design a world, but it’s the only world we’ve got. Make the most of it, Calvin! I’m sure you will.

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at www.dksez.com. Kahle owned the Comic News for 10 years, so a progeny named after a cartoon character isn’t much of a surprise.

This article originally appeared on Register-Guard: Don Kahle: Calvin and jobs: how algorithms dominate our lives

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