Algorithmic Life

Review of several books by Massimo Mazzotti at LARB: “…As a historian of science, I have been trained to think of algorithms as sets of instructions for solving certain problems — and so as neither glamorous nor threatening. Insert the correct input, follow the instructions, and voilà, the desired output. A typical example would be the mathematical formulas used since antiquity to calculate the position of a celestial body at a given time. In the case of a digital algorithm, the instructions need to be translated into a computer program — they must, in other words, be “mechanizable.” Understood in this way — as mechanizable instructions — algorithms were around long before the dawn of electronic computers. Not only were they implemented in mechanical calculating devices, they were used by humans who behaved in machine-like fashion. Indeed, in the pre-digital world, the very term “computer” referred to a human who performed calculations according to precise instructions — like the 200 women trained at the University of Pennsylvania to perform ballistic calculations during World War II. In her classic article “When Computers Were Women,” historian Jennifer Light recounts their long-forgotten story, which takes place right before those algorithmic procedures were automated by ENIAC, the first electronic general-purpose computer.

Terse definitions have now disappeared, however. We rarely use the word “algorithm” to refer solely to a set of instructions. Rather, the word now usually signifies a program running on a physical machine — as well as its effects on other systems. Algorithms have thus become agents, which is partly why they give rise to so many suggestive metaphors. Algorithms now do things. They determine important aspects of our social reality. They generate new forms of subjectivity and new social relationships. They are how a billion-plus people get where they’re going. They free us from sorting through multitudes of irrelevant results. They drive cars. They manufacture goods. They decide whether a client is creditworthy. They buy and sell stocks, thus shaping all-powerful financial markets. They can even be creative; indeed, according to engineer and author Christopher Steiner, they have already composed symphonies “as moving as those composed by Beethoven.”

Do they, perhaps, do too much? That’s certainly the opinion of a slew of popular books on the topic, with titles like Automate This: How Algorithms Took Over Our Markets, Our Jobs, and the World.

Algorithms have captured the scholarly imagination every bit as much as the popular one. Academics variously describe them as a new technology, a particular form of decision-making, the incarnation of a new epistemology, the carriers of a new ideology, and even as a veritable modern myth — a way of saying something, a type of speech that naturalizes beliefs and worldviews. In an article published in 2009 entitled “Power Through the Algorithm,” sociologist David Beer describes algorithms as expressions of a new rationality and form of social organization. He’s onto something fundamental that’s worth exploring further: scientific knowledge and machines are never just neutral instruments. They embody, express, and naturalize specific cultures — and shape how we live according to the assumptions and priorities of those cultures….(More)”