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Behind the algorithm

Thursday 31 January, 2019 at 10:00 - 12:00

Behind the Algorithm

Algorithms are on the agenda today. Scholars argue that algorithms start to replace many things, from production to consumption of media, from editors to journalists, and might even influence election results. Still algorithms are far from perfect.There is a debate whether Amazon is homophobic, whether Google is racist and studies have also found gender biases as a consequence of image search algorithms and that black people are not recognized as humans in face-recognition algorithms.

This research project contributes to this with a much-needed sociological approach to research on algorithms by focusing on the humans behind them. Hence, algorithms are approached as non-neutral and as socially constructed. Being engineered by humans, they embody rules, ideals, imaginations/ perceptions and cultures. They are encoded with human intentions that may or may not be fulfilled. Still, algorithm programmers and software engineers have largely been ignored in empirical studies. Nonetheless it is known that programmers and software engineers mostly belong to the youth, are to a majority white and male. Does this have any influences on the algorithms, and by extension our internet experiences?

The question the project seeks to answer is:What logic, or combination of logics, informs the practices of designing and programming algorithms? This question will be answered through a study software engineers and their intentions, imaginations/ perceptions, rules, ideals, different cultures and how this feeds into their programming and designing of algorithms. The question will be addressed in two different studies: 1) An interview study targeting software engineers, algorithm programmers and designers at in particular social media and search engine organizations 2) An ethnographic study of a news organization. The study will take place at a leading Swedish daily and study the programmers' work with their webpage and the ranking/ placing of news.

This presentation will present the first result of this 2 year research project (funded by the Swedish Research Council). The second study is more or less finished and for the 1 st study the results will be preliminary. The presentation will also address, from the perspective above, discuss the limits of algorithms and discuss todays hype around dataism and artificial intelligence.


Associate professor Jakob Svensson, Malmö University