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

Kimon Keramidas kimon.keramidas at nyu.edu
Fri Oct 29 19:36:59 PDT 2021

> An algorithm for sorting lists alphabetically or numerically is not “an opinion  embedded in math” since most of the time, alphabetical and numerical order are uncontroversial, widely used standards. Yet no distinction is made. “These algorithms.” 

> For many with little understanding of how computer systems work, “the algorithm” becomes a proxy for “the programmers” and often assumes intent on the part of those programmers - but today, in many case programmers don't know in advance how their code will interact with all the other code in massive online systems that also interact with *other* massive online systems, all of them constantly changing on a near-daily basis. Nor do many discourses about algorithms fully take into the account how social media algorithms are constantly adapting in the continual back-and-forth between the human users of these systems and “the algorithm.” 

With regards to these two comments from your great contribution Paul. Trying to differentiate two types of algorithms perhaps allows for unintentional or even purposeful dismissal of the social situatedness of the development of any algorithm. In your first example the reason that it is uncontroversial is that the algorithm lacks a level of complexity and therefore its design is very unlikely to end up with results that are encoded with any sort of concerning cultural context as we see it. But even in this example we can postulate a fictional environment where such an algorithm could have social ramifications. Imagine a society where those people whose names start with higher letters in an alphabet by default have more power than others. Then an alphabetizing system would reinforce such a social strata, and lack of recognition by a person using that algorithm in certain instances where ramifications would come through would represent irresponsible naivete. This is not that far a reach from histories of noble and non-aristocratic names in recent Western history. You sort the names, you sort the classes.

I posit this speculative/real fictional example because there is always a creator crafting an algorithm and then applying it in practice. Algorithms are culture. Sometimes their creators are programmers, sometimes they are mathematicians, sometimes they are economists, and so on and so forth. Those algorithm crafters can only ever see the world through the eyes of their personal history (the Bourdiueian habitus) and whether they do it intentionally or not the work is imprinted by that history. 

Which leads to what I see as a problem of your second quote. The algorithm isn’t a proxy for the programmers, because they are part of an indivisible system. You can’t have one without the other. So, if we are going to critique the algorithms we must consider the programmers. And if we are going to critique the programmers we must consider the algorithms they create. They may not have intent, but they always have agency. A few structures in contemporary society however often let programmers or the companies they work for off the hook. 

One is the positivistic nature of much computer science which lacks an introspective and self-critical analysis to think about just what would be the ramifications of an algorithm once it interacts with a massive online system. Just because they don’t know–as you state–doesn’t mean they shouldn’t imagine what might happen. Nor does it mean that they shouldn’t be vigilant or adaptive about sociocultural impacts, which they often are not because that does not fit their motives or the motives of the corporations they work for. This rupture is what people in the humanities in media studies, digital humanities, etc. are often trying to bring to the table, a more systemic understanding of the ramifications of these actions.

Second is the continued American passion for techno-libertarianism, which has gotten us into this huge mess with Google, Facebook, etc. Many people have known for a long time that these companies, and specifically the algorithms they use to do business, are aimed towards corporate expansion and not with the public good or betterment of individuals in mind. But, as the success stories of the 21st century they have for a long time been given the benefit of the doubt by consumers, tech critics, and government. Only now has there been the beginning of a reckoning. But for the majority of their existence Facebook and Google have been companies driven by advertising sales with some alternative services (search, mail, books, scholar, apps) provided for free to entice people into their ecosystem and enhance that business model. And the main focus of their work is to create algorithms that are (to quote Paul’s paraphrase of Knuth) well-defined, finite set of steps that produce unambiguous results. And in this case those unambiguous results of their algorithmic processing is more information to improvement their systems and to ultimately increase ad sales revenue, despite potential social harm.

I go to this length because I think your comments that the algorithms are constantly changing and adapting lets the corporations and programmers off the hook. They are of course completely aware of this system flux and their algorithms are complicated enough to not only recognize, but to exploit that flux. Algorithms have input and output, and we should keep a focus in critiquing our digital era on what people intend for their algorithms to do, what types of outputs they are crafting for. Looking into that, we can better determine whether they are creating public systems that are not exploit and harming people through the intentional crafting of those algorithms.


Kimon Keramidas, Ph.D.
Clinical Associate Professor, XE: Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement <http://as.nyu.edu/xe.html>
Affiliated Faculty, Program in International Relations

Pronouns: He/Him

New York University
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> On Oct 29, 2021, at 4:25 PM, Paul N. Edwards <pedwards at stanford.edu> wrote:

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