Angèle Christin (Stanford University)
Wednesday, January 15, 2020 at 4:00 P.M.
Computer Science and Engineering Building (CSE) 1202 on the UCSD campus
Algorithms in Practice
Big Data evangelists often argue that algorithms make decision-making more informed and objective—a promise hotly contested by critics of these technologies. Yet, to date, most of the debate has focused on the instruments themselves, rather than on how they are used. Against the rhetoric of algorithmic determinism that permeates Silicon Valley, both among tech evangelists and critical op-ed writers, I argue that it is essential to study how algorithms are used “in the wild,” rather than merely how they are designed. I call this research program the study of “algorithms in practice.” Drawing on multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork, I compare how algorithms are used and interpreted in three institutional contexts with markedly different characteristics: online news; criminal justice; and YouTube content creation. I document different interpretations and uses of metrics and algorithms, which I call algorithmic ambivalence, algorithmic resistance, and algorithmic suspicion. Contrary to narratives that emphasize the standardizing effects of data and technology, I find that people use and interpret algorithms differently depending on their institutional and cultural contexts. I conclude with a call for further ethnographic work on algorithms in practice as an important empirical check against the dominant rhetoric of algorithmic power.
Angèle Christin is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and affiliated faculty in the Sociology Department and Program in Science, Technology, and Society at Stanford University. She studies how algorithms and analytics transform professional values, expertise, and work practices. Her book, Metrics at Work: Journalism and the Contested Meaning of Journalism, will be published by Princeton University Press in 2020.