Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The rise of the algorithms

The Knife - a financial trading algorithm

This week Tarleton Gillespie was the latest critical commentator to analyse the role that algorithms play in contemporary life. His detailed insightful and urgent essay, The Relevance of Algorithms was published on the Culture Digitally blog this week, ahead of it's forthcoming publication in the MIT book, "Media Technologies".

Picking up where Kevin Slavin's excoriating Lift talk, "Those algorithms that govern our lives" (later reprised for TED) left off, Gillespie conducts a thorough investigation into how algorithms provide the basis for a great deal of our individual and societal choices. That we understand their impact on our daily lives so poorly is cause for great concern, Gillespie argues. He notes a particular anxiety with the way that algorithms are starting to influence how we find and interpret information, and points to the obvious impact this will have on politics:

"Algorithms not only help us find information, they provide a means to know what there is to know and how to know it, to participate in social and political discourse."

This has strong and relevant echoes back to the set of concerns raised by both designers and artists working with technology, as alluded to in a previous post. Artists Julian Oliver, Danja Vasiliev and Gordan Savicic have developed a discourse they refer to as "critical engineering", which aims to expose the systems, mechanisms, languages and logics which make up our engineered world. This is urgent, political work, they argue, as the encroachment of engineering into our lives, is matched only by its increasing invisibility. If we lose our ability to perceive this technological infrastructure, we lose agency.

As Oliver wrote recently:
"As thinkers with technical abilities in several areas, we want to take on our built and increasingly automated environment [...] If there's ever a time to be doing that, it's now, especially with opaque and hidden infrastructure in the telecommunications space deeply impacting diplomatic relations and civil liberties world wide. [...] Our inability to describe and understand technological infrastructure reduces our critical reach, leaving us both disempowered and, quite often, vulnerable." - Julian Oliver (September 2012)

These thoughts are echoed almost precisely by designer, writer and publisher, James Bridle (who's work in this area was referenced here recently), who notes:
"By legibility I mean our own ability to read these systems, how much they can affect the way we see and act in the world, and the differing positions of power we have in the world based on how legible those systems are. [...] Programmers have a huge amount of agency in the world, because they can deconstruct, reverse engineer and write and construct and create these systems. People who can't, don't, and they have less power in the world because of it." - James Bridle (September 2012). He later wrote:
"Those who cannot perceive the network cannot act effectively within it, and are powerless. The job, then, is to make such things visible."

Gillespie's essay operates very much within this spirit, insisting on the need to be able to perceive and understand the way that algorithms are becoming part of our lived environment. He writes:
"What we need is an interrogation of algorithms as a key feature of our information ecosystem, and of the cultural forms emerging in their shadows, with a close attention to where and in what ways the introduction of algorithms into human knowledge practices may have political ramifications."

His essay then seeks to do just that, providing an excellent map for this emerging terrain.  His perspective is not technological, but rather sociological, an analysis which he insists "must not conceive of algorithms as abstract, technical achievements, but must unpack the warm human and institutional choices that lie behind these cold mechanisms."

His essay is a vital insight into these choices.  Resonating with the worlds of both Oliver and Bridle, he concludes:
"In many ways, algorithms remain outside our grasp, and they are designed to be. This is not to say that we should not aspire to illuminate their workings and impact. We should. But we may also need to prepare ourselves for more and more encounters with the unexpected and ineffable associations they will sometimes draw for us, the fundamental uncertainty about who we are speaking to or hearing, and the palpable but opaque undercurrents that move quietly beneath knowledge when it is managed by algorithms.


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