Seminar #2: ‘Travelling Algorithms: How developers of data analysis from finance to health copy each other’

WhenThursday 10 December 2020, 15:00–17:00 (Central European Time) on Zoom.
Co-organizer Francis Lee (Chalmers University of Technology)
PanelistsDavid Ribes (University of Washington)
Lukas Engelmann (Edinburgh University)
Neil Pollock (Edinburgh University)
Nick Seaver (Tufts University)
Renita Thedvall (Stockholm University)
AbstractToday’s society is increasingly shaped by computer systems and algorithms. Currently, algorithms are used to automatically identify people in surveillance, to calculate the risk of disease transmission, and to assess the risk of criminal recidivism. An important aspect of this development is that algorithms are often treated as if they were domain independent—as if they could be translated without friction between different areas of society. For example, a US computer system for predictive policing, Predpol, uses an algorithm developed for predicting earthquake aftershocks to predict future crimes. An algorithm from geology is consequently translated into software that organizes law enforcement. Another example is how a music listening service, Pandora, imported an algorithm from ecology, that was intended to identify musical omnivores, as they were thought to have more social status—and more valuable for advertisers. An algorithm was consequently translated from ecology to listener classification. In sum, developers are translating algorithms between different domains and thereby spread different ways of classifying, valuing, and organizing the world with regional implications, for example how these systems and programmes are implemented in the Nordic countries. What are then the consequences of treating crime as earthquakes? Or music listeners as herd animals?
QuestionsThis seminar aims to address questions such as: How are ideas translated into new contexts in an increasingly algorithmic world? How and in what ways do ideas and algorithms travel between settings, organizations, and geographical regions? How do algorithms become carriers of ideas? Do different carriers—different algorithms—transform ideas and practices?
Recommended textsRibes D, A. Hoffman, S. Slota & G. Bowker. “The Logic of Domains.” Social Studies of Science, 2019 (online first).
Reed, Lowell. “What is epidemic theory?” Science Review Series, Special Collection, Johns Hopkins University, 1951.
Ribes, David. “How I Learned What a Domain Was.” In Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 3, No. CSCW, Article 38, November 2019. ACM, New York, NY, USA.
Glaser, Vern L., Neil Pollock & Luciana D’Adderio, “The Biography of an Algorithm: Performing Algorithmic Technologies in Organizations.” 2020.