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Algorithms are Not Angels

A presentation and talk by Matthew Fuller and Graham Harwood on the invisible power of algorithms at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Part of the series "Algorithmic Regimes and Generative Strategies" hosted by Felix Stalder and Konrad Becker.


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 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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