Algorithms in Culture

A foundational concept in computer science, algorithms – loosely defined as a set of rules to direct the behavior of machines or humans – have shaped infrastructures, practices, and daily lives around the world. We explore the implications of their development and deployment in politics, media, science, organizations, culture, and the construction of the self. This understanding has become ever more pressing in both academia and public discourse.

Please visit for more about this initiative.

We invite social scientists, computer scientists, and humanities scholars to contribute to the burgeoning field of “critical algorithm studies” that takes algorithms as an object of cultural inquiry from a social scientific and humanistic perspective. Our initiative, which includes conferences, symposia, special issues, edited volumes, reading groups, and industry visits, builds on the success of the Governing Algorithms conference and special issue, as well as other exciting events in this space.

Though not an exhaustive list, these questions guide our inquiry.

(1) The multiple definitions and histories of algorithms: The term ‘algorithm’ predates the digital computer by over a thousand years, with an etymology traceable to the Islamic scholar al-Khwārizmī. How broadly might we usefully define the term today? Are contemporary algorithms a necessarily computational phenomenon? What does the explosion of discourse about ‘algorithms’ in popular culture in the last decade mean?

(2) Algorithms as more than computation: What does it mean to study algorithms as myth, narrative, ideology, discourse, or power? In what ways can these approaches contribute back to concepts and questions within computer science, data science, and big data initiatives?

(3) Algorithms as specifically computational: What kinds of applications and activities are now possible given certain developments in computational infrastructure and theories of computation, such as big data, deep neural networks, distributed computing, or ‘microwork’? What are the social and theoretical implications of these developments?

(4) The practices and materialities of algorithms: Just as many in the interdisciplinary field of science studies advocate for a focus on the local practices and material artifacts which produce and sustain scientific knowledge, what kinds of work is done to make algorithms computable, and what are the material effects of algorithms?

(5) Living with algorithms, quantifying the self: Algorithms pervade daily life and we experience their reach and impact almost anywhere, not just while working at a computer. How can we better understand how far-flung domains are being reshaped by algorithms? What are the consequences of big data and the quantified self in the everyday and in civic life?

In 2016 and 2017 we accomplished a number of exciting initiatives, with support from the Institute of International Studies, the UC Berkeley Social Science Matrix, the UC Berkeley Townsend Center for the Humanities, the Berkeley Institute of Data Science, and our host unit, the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society. Our goals for the 2016-2017 year included:

(1) A workshop on STS and Design, bringing together scholars and practitioners in town for CHI 2016 and members of the UC Berkeley community

(2) A conference and special issue on the topic of Algorithms in Society, bringing together scholars from around the world to present to the Berkeley community.

(3) A symposium on the Longue Duree History of Algorithmic Thinking in Mathematics, leading to an edited volume.

(4) An exploration of further research collaboration opportunities between the multi-disciplinary researchers on the Executive Committee.

We have made great progress regarding these goals:

  • On April 29, 2016, the Executive Committee, a group of six faculty members spanning four departments at U.C. Berkeley, first convened to finalize the CFP and discuss plans for the coming year.
  • On May 13, 2016, we hosted an “STS+Design” workshop which drew over 40 attendees from across campus and around the country, many in town for the CHI 2016 conference in San Jose immediately preceding. This workshop established a research agenda for scholars at the intersection of STS and design, of which the algorithms initiative is a part.
  • At the beginning of summer 2016, we circulated a CFP for a special issue on Algorithms in Culture in Big Data & Society.
  • At the end of summer 2016, we selected 24 papers from 49 submissions to write full papers and present at a public conference on December 1-2.
  • During fall 2016, we met regularly to organize and publicize the Algorithms in Culture conference.
  • On December 1-2, 2016, CSTMS and BIDS co-hosted the Algorithms in Culture conference, which drew standing-room-only crowds of over 100 attendees from across the UC Berkeley community.
  • During January and February 2017, we organized external peer review of the 22 revised papers, recruiting over 50 senior scholars. After an Executive Committee meeting in February, we wrote meta-reviews for all authors and distributed these for further revision.
  • During February and March 2017, we organized the “Longue Duree History of Algorithmic Thinking in Mathematics” symposium.
  • During April 2017, we received revised papers from Algorithms in Culture authors. We finalized the special issues and coordinated their publication with journal editors.
  • On May 5-6, 2017, CSTMS and the UC Berkeley Social Science Matrix hosted the “Longue Duree History of Algorithmic Thinking in Mathematics” symposium, bringing together 12 leading scholars in the history of mathematics to present their work to a public audience and workshop it with fellow authors.
  • In August 2017, five authors from the Algorithms in Culture special issues presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) in Boston.
  • In Fall 2017 and Spring 2018, the Big Data and Society special issue articles were published.

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