Fourth Lecture – “Algorithmic Culture” and “Erasure of human judgement through rationalization and automation”

In this meeting we had one presentation:

and a short introduction to “culture”, a short summary of the readings and an “Engaging Activity” to Algorithms in our daily lives:

Culture is a term that is very difficult to grasp. It could maybe be desribed as aquired cognitive and symoblic aspects of human existence. Culture isn’t bounded, i.e. one can not define a “circle” around it (e.g. “Austrian Culture”: What is it actually? Does it stop at national borders? …). Many algorithms tend to fragment culture/publics through sorting/filtering/… (e.g. geolocalised search results). Culture does not only influence people, people also influence culture. This maybe is analogous to languages and how people speak them.

“The Lives of Bots” describes Wikipedia bots that take part in editing. In this system they are actors similar to human beings. An alternative stance would be to think of them as cultural artifacts, “anything created by humans which gives information about the culture of its creator and users” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_artifact).  The article “The Cathedral of Computation” was focused on the culture around algorithms. It is centered on technological determinism, i.e. with the belief that technology ultimately advances “society” and is able to solve important social problems. It also stated that people tend to view algorithms as god-given, unchangeable and objective, which is a problem since they are changeable.

Next we took part in an activity with the intention to have a recent, conscious experience related to the topic in order to fuel reflection and dicussion. The presenter of “Algorithmic Culture” chose to  use this method instead of the usual presentation with slides. We were told to search for a recent article in Austria on a specific algorithm influencing our daily lives. We talked about our experiences and the results we got from the different search engines we used. The various plattforms featured different paraemters for the search. Participants using the same plattform and search query got different results due to personalization algorithms. We talked about how ranking by “relevance” is very context dependent and that something like “relevance” can not just be calculated. It is also a very poltical concept, since these rankings are a hierachy of importance which is acknowledged by users. A lot of personalization seems to be language and country dependent which reproduces legal borders between states in the digital realm.

The last hour of our session was again dedicated to discussion. We talked about a paper stating that self-tracking healthy eating apps do not really structurally change the culture of unhealthy eating. The responsiblity is with the companies and marketing departments selling unhealthy products and not really emphasising the risks involved. These apps are predomanitkly used by people with smartphones and more wealth, since one needs time and money to really use these apps. Many unhealthy foods are also cheaper in comparision to healthy alternatives. The article “algorithmic self” raised the issue of people writing posts not only with the intent to influence how other people will see them, but also how the algorithm sees them. For example some news publisher write titles for their articles in ways that algorithms will rank them higher and more people will click them. Later on we talked about Social Media and its influence on people. The used medium governs how people communicate with each other and in turn social norms develop around structures build into the system, e.g. “can you friend me on facebook” is the new “can you give me your phone number”. It is important to make data available for discussion and research, so different groups can inspect the systems to see if they adhere the ethical principles. It would also be important to teach algorithmic literacy in school. Global Trending Topics on Twitter work as a way to unify different Filter Bubbles. Trends are still fragmented (by country or others). One can choose which fragment one desires, but still on twitter not many people do it. Creating filter bubbles protects from the outside and create a closed spaces where fewer things have to be discussed and less criticism is possible. Algorithmic systems are also becoming increasingly important in political discourse with Facebook beeing accused of manipulating it’s streams in the U.S. against Trump and Hillary Clinton having various issues with her emails.

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