Konrad Becker on Fri, 18 Dec 2015 22:55:41 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Algorithms are not Angels

Matthew Fuller and Graham Harwood visited Vienna for "Algorithmic Regimes".
With a presentation on "Algorithms are not Angels" at the Academy of Fine
Arts and a workshop "Invisible Algorithm College" on rule based terrain. A
video of their talk is here:

Cheers, K

"Algorithms are not Angels"

The term "Algorithm" means a logically described step-by-step procedure.  It
has recently become a popular, if not dominant, term to refer to when
describing the power computational processes have in contemporary forms of
life.  Algorithms are used in all systems that involve computers, from
traffic control to rituals of mate-selection and war-fighting.  They select
targets and enact processes.  Certain kinds of algorithm extract novel
readings or predictions from aggregates of data.  Understanding their
actions and bringing them into ethical scrutiny is very important.  However,
algorithms do not act alone.  They require numerous other factors to
operate, not the least of which is their organised relation to data and
data-structures.  Indeed, the recent critical attention to algorithms should
be seen as only a useful step towards a more substantial understanding of
computational systems in culture, politics and everyday life.

	This talk looks at algorithmic processes in the contexts of the
wider socio-technical ensembles they operate in.  We will look at two
specific cases: firstly, the Afghan War Diaries files released by Chelsea
Manning; secondly, using the case of an addiction services database, we will
examine the way in which healthcare services are modulated by the structures
of databases.  In both these cases, significant decisions are made not by
algorithms alone, but by forms of data, command structures, processes of
valuation, law, and means of encoding and storing data amongst others.

	The recent turn to algorithmic ethics needs to understand the
material contexts in which algorithms operate if it is not to idealise forms
of effective procedure - like some kind of mathematical angels - as having
primary agency.  Understanding the wider ecology in which algorithms operate
is essential in being able to distinguish those cases where particular kinds
of powers are held and enacted by algorithms.  This talk aims to provide
some grounds for such work. 


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