Do we govern algorithms, or do they govern us?

computer_code

Credit: bigthink.com

Earlier this year, one of my professional journals, Science, Technology, & Human Values, published a special issue on “governing algorithms.” What are those, you might wonder? So did I. Now I know. And in some ways I wish I didn’t. They’re just one more thing to fret about….

According to the American Heritage Science Dictionary, an algorithm is “a finite set of unambiguous instructions performed in a prescribed sequence to achieve a goal, especially a mathematical rule or procedure used to compute a desired result. Algorithms are the basis for most computer programming.”

The term “governing algorithms” refers to the ways in which algorithms affect our lives  and also to whether algorithms warrant some sort of governance. Guest editor Malte Ziewitz of Cornell University observes, algorithms are a sort of “modern myth…. They have been depicted as powerful entities that rule, sort, govern, shape, or otherwise control our lives,” and “their alleged obscurity and inscrutability make it difficult to understand what exactly is at stake.”

We’re all familiar with this situation: we want to download a new application, but before we can do that we must agree to a set of terms and conditions and privacy policies. “Providers claim they are acting legally because they have the user’s consent…. When asked why they do not read [these documents], users often reply that they make no sense,” writes Lucas Introna of Lancaster University. “If consent is given, does it cover handing over data to governments?”

Algorithms, deployed as software, are “inscrutable” – at least to the vast majority of us who cannot either write or read code. “They become black boxes.” Decisions made by human coders become “encapsulated in complex inscrutable algorithms that enact (in millions of lines of source code) our supposed choices based on complex relational conditions, which after many iterations of ‘bug fixing’ and ‘tweaking’ even the programmers often no longer understand,” Introna says.

(Are you fretting yet? Just a little bit uneasy? I am.)

Introna examines the “algorithmic actor” Turnitin, which offers a computerized method for checking academic writing for sourcing and plagiarism. Turnitin claims its system “fosters critical thinking.” (I’ll have to think about that claim….)

Turnitin’s sister company iThenticate offers a similar system for academic publishers. “This is the algorithmic governance of academic writing on an unprecedented scale,” says Introna. “When did academic writing come to be seen as a ‘problem’ in need of such governance?

Think about a search engine’s indexing and ranking algorithms – or a news feed’s, or, say, jobs.gov’s….

To wrap up, let me mention some other papers and articles about algorithms, published elsewhere – their titles alone will give you something to think about:

“’Why do white people have thin lips?’ Google and the perpetuation of stereotypes via auto-complete search forms” (Baker and Potts, Critical Discourse Studies, 2013)

“Automating the news: how personalized news recommender system design choices impact news reception” (Beam, Communication Research, 2014)

“Want to be on top? Algorithmic power and the threat of invisibility on Facebook” (Brucher, New Media and Society, 2012)

“Financial news and market panics in the age of high-frequency sentiment trading algorithms,” (Kleinnijenhuis et al, Journalism, 2013)

“NSA uses Google cookies to pinpoint targets for hacking” (Soltani and Gellman, The Washington Post, 2013)

Talk amongst yourselves….

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