[SIGCIS-Members] "How Social Media's Giant Algorithm Shapes our Feeds."

Maarten Bullynck maarten.bullynck at kuttaka.org
Thu Oct 28 04:02:03 PDT 2021


Dear All,

It is not the first time the word "algorithm" has shifted in meaning, in 
fact, its "Knuthian" version of a well-defined sequence of a finite 
number of steps leading to a specific result only dates back to the late 
19th century.
Later, "algorithm" became a household word in computing but only after 
1960, because of ALGOL and, later, Knuth. Before that time "method" is 
used much more frequently than "algorithm".

These results come from an article Liesbeth De Mol and msyelf recently 
wrote on the semantic shifts happening to words like "program", "code" 
and "algorithm". It is due to published soon in the volume "Abstractions 
and Embodiments: New Histories of Computing and Society" edited by 
Stephanie Dick and Janet Abbate.
A preprint is online: https://hal.univ-lille.fr/hal-03081203

Though we stop around 1960 in our article, the conclusion says something 
about the generalization of the word "algorithm" now, meaning indeed 
something like "complex program". Though its popular use may certainly 
have to do with Google, as Allan suggests, you may find such usage 
earlier on. In the 1970s one frequently finds "scheduling algorithm" and 
in IA they also talk of algorithms. These are not "Knuthian" algorithms, 
but rather numerical formulae with a lot of (empirical) inputs that are 
processed to *control* or stabilize a system, be it a multiprogramming 
system or an IA system.
In contrast with "Knuthian" algorithms, the formulae depend on 
"arbitrary" parameters that are tweeked to obtain some kind of system 
behaviour. If one takes the example of the "Google"-algorithm, the 
"Knuthian" part of it is just plain matrix diagonalization/inversion, 
but it is how the "empirical" input is put into the matrix, and how the 
weights are accorded to entries of the matrix that make up the intricate 
interest for Google, but these are "arbitrary" parameters that 
constitute top layers built on the "Knuthian" matrix algorithm, these 
layers reflect economical and social choices.

best wishes

Maarten



On 2021-10-28 07:28, Allan Olley wrote:
> Hello,
> 
> My sense is talk of when an algorithm becomes many algorithms or the
> like is an example of a sorites paradox (how many items make a heap,
> if you take one item off a heap it is still a heap yet if you take 10
> items off it is not etc.). How many steps can you add to an algorithm
> before it becomes a heap of algorithms, a blob (or a piece of software
> and how many lines of code before a piece of software becomes a suite
> of software and so on)?
> 
> My suspicion is talk of "the algorithm" may have started with Google's
> PageRank algorithm. My sense is that the original PageRank algorithm
> was a proper Knuthian algorithm of definite and limited size, but of
> course as they applied it to search and had to deal with various
> exigencies including people trying to game the algorithm there were
> endless additions and tinkering. So probably the scheme by which
> Google arranges search results is more like a heap of algorithms or
> the Blob than the original PageRank algorithm, but it is often called
> an algorithm or "the algoirthm".
> 
> I am guessing the popular notion of algorithm grew from Google's
> PageRank to other not wholly dissimilar systems such as the method by
> which Facebook (and other social media sites) decides what we see on
> our feed or Youtube decides what videos to suggest we might want to
> watch and so on,
> 
> On Thu, Oct 28, 2021 at 12:49 AM Kimon Keramidas
> <kimon.keramidas at nyu.edu> wrote:
> 
>> Dear Paul,
>> 
>> I actually don’t think that’s an inappropriate use of the term
>> and that term has certainly evolved in popular use to this extent. I
>> would also say that it has grown in its uses in technical
>> application. It may seem like a blob from one perspective but for
>> Facebook, the system that decides a post’s position based on
>> predictions is very much a “well-defined, finite set of steps that
>> produces an unambiguous result.” They get exactly what they want
>> by feeding data into that algorithm and getting a result that they
>> can then apply to their business practices. I think that in this day
>> and age a conception of how algorithms are conceived, executed and
>> worked has to be more expansive as technologies are increasingly
>> integrated into complex formulaic processes such as these. For
>> example, I am certain that there is some level of AI built into
>> Facebook's algorithm and therefore a level of complexity that seems
>> “blob-like” but nonetheless is conceived and executed with the
>> goal of unambiguous (at least from their perspective) algorithmic
>> results by Facebook’s engineers.
>> 
>> Safiya Noble’s book blows this out even further as she argues for
>> _Algorithms of Oppression. _Noble highlights that embedded social
>> biases actually integrate themselves into the construction of
>> computer-based algorithms. They embed themselves in such a way that
>> we could say that these biases become acceptable cultural practices
>> that integrate themselves into those “well-defined, finite steps
>> of steps” if we start analyzing choices made in the construction
>> of algorithms from a sociological as well as technical outlook.
>> 
>> And as far as whether people should consider some algorithms as
>> something threatening. That probably wouldn’t necessarily be a bad
>> thing at this point. I know that despite a long held skepticism
>> towards all things Facebook even I have been shocked about some of
>> the blatant abuses that are being revealed over the last few weeks.
>> 
>> Looking forward to further conversation.
>> 
>> Cheers,
>> Kimon
>> 
>> Kimon Keramidas, Ph.D.
>> Clinical Associate Professor, XE: Experimental Humanities & Social
>> Engagement [2]
>> Affiliated Faculty, Program in International Relations
>> 
>> Pronouns: He/Him
>> 
>> New York University
>> 14 University Place
>> New York, NY 10003
>> 
>> Co-Director - ITMO University International Digital Humanities
>> Research Center [3]
>> Co-Founder - The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy [4]
>> Co-Founder - NYCDH [5]
>> 
>> E kimon.keramidas at nyu.edu
>> W http://kimonkeramidas.com [6]
>> 
>> _The Sogdians: Influencers on the Silk Roads_
>> Exhibition [7]
>> 
>> The Interface Experience: Forty Years of Personal Computing
>> Exhibition [8]
>> 
>> The Interface Experience: A User’s Guide
>> Winner of the 2016 Innovation in Print Design Award from the
>> American Alliance of Museums
>> Buy Book [9]
>> 
>>> On Oct 27, 2021, at 7:52 PM, Ceruzzi, Paul <CeruzziP at si.edu>
>>> wrote:
>>> 
>>> This headline came from today's _Washington Post_, in a long
>>> above-the-fold article about Facebook's policies in determining
>>> what users see when they "like" a post. The article does not
>>> define the word, but describes an algorithm as "...a system that
>>> decides on a post's position on the news feed based on predictions
>>> about each user's preferences and tendencies." That sounds to me
>>> like a complex piece of software, with perhaps hundreds of lines
>>> of code, that takes in a lot of variables and produces a
>>> potentially wide range of outputs. It conjures up an image of
>>> something sinister and menacing. Not what Knuth defined as an
>>> "algorithm" in Volume One of his _Art of Computer Programming_.
>>> His definition has been refined over the years, but it retains the
>>> notion of a well-defined, finite set of steps that produces an
>>> unambiguous result.
>>> 
>>> Should we be bothered that the _Post_ (and I assume other
>>> newspapers) are not using the term properly?  Are people now going
>>> to think of an "algorithm" as something threatening, like "The
>>> Blob" in that famous Steve McQueen movie?
>>> 
>>> Paul Ceruzzi
>>> 
>>> Tom Haigh & Paul Ceruzzi, _A New History of Modern Computing_ (MIT
>>> Press 2021) _______________________________________________
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> 
> --
> Yours Truly,
> Allan Olley, PhD
> 
> http://individual.utoronto.ca/fofound
> 
> Links:
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