Are we our data? AI and our digital selves

woman's face superimposed with images of floppy disks.
Image from cover of book, “We Are Data.” (NYU Press Blog)

John Cheney-Lippold, professor of American culture and digital studies, says digital personas created by proprietary algorithms lack the nuance of real world ways of being. The trouble with algorithms, he says in an interview with CBC Radio, is that while they can pick up online engagements and patterns, algorithms are not able to determine things like emotions.

From a more serious perspective, algorithms may have implications for the public’s access to democratic rights. Cheney-Lippold said the US National Security Agency uses algorithms to analyze personal communications and determine citizenship status.

“[Algorithms are] trillion dollar trade secrets,” Cheney-Lippold said. “If Coca Cola’s recipe is one thing, Google’s algorithm is 40 times that. They’re silos of understanding ourselves, for purposes not for ourselves. I think that’s the most problematic.”

Author: Mona Beydoun, ITS Communications

Mona is an intern at U-M ITS. Contact her at or on LinkedIn.