Computational Arts Research & Theory Blog

Post 2 - Oct 18th, 2018
The Holy Algorithm

This week we read and discussed Tarleton Gillespie’s 2014 essay Algorithm.

Gillespie begins his essay by stating that the term algorithm has different meanings to different communities and that “for the broader public they name something unattainably complex”. He then goes on to define what an algorithm might mean for a scholar, a designer – all the while trying to demystify the term and to reinforce that algorithms are merely a set of rules that solve a problem. It is who designs these sets of rules, what defines them, and the impact these rules have on the individual and society that are the real concern.

Gillespie goes on to discuss the algorithm as scapegoat for corporate responsibility and points out that the term algorithm can be used synecdochically for instance “to Google” a query instead of search. Algorithms have become so engrained in parlance and society that we accept them without question. What is my tailored google search not showing me for example?

Most interestingly, Gillespie positions the algorithm as talisman – an objective, legitimate tool which can reach conclusions free from human error and bias. This rings especially true to my experience working for a dating app which promised the best experience available due to the strength of its algorithm. The model of the app was to deliver one person a day – a highly curated match – just for you. It was a seductive offer and many subscribers flocked to the app for the delivery of their soulmate. The app also offered a welcome alternative to “hook up” applications like Tinder.

After a period of a few months though many active subscribers left the platform without having forged a lasting relationship. The dating firm was consistently trying to improve the algorithm to achieve better results but fundamentally it simply matched educational level, race preferences, gender preferences, age, and location. One might fare better at a bar or party. The issue at heart is that people are not going out as much or meeting one another anymore. We look to technology to offer quick solutions to health, love, and happiness.

I had questions upon finishing the essay as I found Gillespie’s main points somewhat murky. What is the main purpose of this article? Is it to demystify the almighty magical algorithm and try to provoke his readers to become interested in understanding a particular algorithm? Is he asking for corporate responsibility and transparency? Is he saying that algorithms do not work to successfully categorize and organize human data and behavior? For an essay which critiques algorithms, Gillespie omits discussing algorithmic bias such as inaccurate facial recognition with darker skinned individuals. This essay offered more in reflection than on the first read. The best outcome was an excellent class discussion.

An idea for an artwork using or referring to algorithms:

This is an excellent prompt and I would like to dedicate more time to this idea. I am inspired by the article to take a critical stance and would like to draw attention to the systems that dictate our lives without our awareness.

The project could be something simple such as a broken personal recommendation system or a broken search system which would both serve up impossibly bad results.

Participants could interact with a tactile interactive device based on a magic eight ball that would promise to find and play the perfect music for everyone. Perhaps the system could be installed in a room and could employ sensors to trigger visuals or audio. The system would inform the participants that based on some aspect of their being - body type, age, or gender – that they have been classified as “X”. This classification would be erroneous and would hopefully inspire people to wonder how they are being misclassified in other systems.

Further Reading and Viewing:

Understanding the Limits of AI: When Algorithms Fail by Timnit Gebru

Weapons of Math Destruction:
How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy on Amazon

Automating Inequality on Amazon

Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society by Raymond Williams on Amazon
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