Inclusive Digital Futures

The Social Life of Algorithms (ESR 1)

Tracing notions of algorithms beyond human-computer interactions

Research in the emerging field of critical algorithm studies is increasingly showing that people construct diverse notions of the meaning, agency and potential of the concept of an algorithm through gossip (Schellewald, 2022; Bishop, 2019), folk theories (Eslami et al., 2016) and diverse forms of anthropomorphization and imaginaries (Büchi, 2021; Lomborg and Kapsch, 2020; Bucher, 2017) that emerge from everyday uses of algorithm-driven technologies rather than from knowledge of their technical properties (Ruckenstein, 2023; Gran et al., 2021; Seaver, 2018; Kitchin, 2017). While ethnographic approaches in critical algorithm studies have become central to broadening how the concept of an algorithm can be understood, they rely on the perceived duration, quality and outcome of specific human-algorithm interactions. In doing so, emerging notions of algorithms become entangled with the technologies that allow humans and algorithms to interact. In contrast, scarce attention has been placed on developing ethnographic approaches to examine how people make sense of algorithms outside the spatial and temporal boundaries where humans and algorithms interact. By relying on samples made from those who (can afford to) experience human-algorithm interactions, current approaches in critical algorithm studies
risk limiting the analysis to a one-dimensional understanding of how the concept of an algorithm becomes appropriated, and to what consequences.

To address this gap in research towards an ethnography of algorithms in everyday life, we examine the transition from technical to social understandings of the meaning, agency and potential of algorithms through the lens of the social life of things: a conceit proposed by Appadurai [1988] to place attention on the diverse situations and practices that imbue meaning to things that inherently have none. Through this lens, we extend the reach of critical algorithm approaches and examine how diverse understandings of algorithms are formed, negotiated and adopted outside interactions with technology, focusing instead on the social and cultural dynamics that mediate how different understandings of algorithms–and the ideals and values attached to them–interact. In doing so, we shift attention to the everyday situations and practices where, even though algorithm-driven technologies are not in sight, notions of algorithms continue to be discussed, imagined and re-interpreted.

We conducted our first exploration of the social life of algorithms by prototyping ethnographic approaches in the Salvadorian town of El Zonte, where the foreign-led Bitcoin Beach project aims to transition the local population into a sustainable Bitcoin economic ecosystem by promoting the adoption of, as the project frames it, the Bitcoin algorithm. Building on multi-sited theory [Marcus, 1995] and methods from design anthropology [Smith et al., 2016; Gunn et al., 2013], we traced how, when and where notions of the Bitcoin algorithm are becoming embedded with different–often opposing–ideals and potentials as the Bitcoin Beach project continues to be implemented and contested. By researching how notions of the Bitcoin algorithm became social, we opened a conversation regarding the feedback loop between the construction of these notions and the transformation of the practices where notions of algorithms emerge. This research highlights the tensions that arise when notions of algorithms are constructed alongside everyday practices and the social and cultural implications of purposefully curating top-down notions of algorithms.


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Gunn, Wendy, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, eds. Design anthropology: theory and practice. Taylor & Francis, 2013
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Seaver, Nick. “What should an anthropology of algorithms do?.” Cultural anthropology 33.3 (2018): 375-385.

Smith, Rachel Charlotte, et al. “Design Anthropological Futures.” Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.

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