Some thoughts about how ‘algorithms’ are talked about & what it might mean to study them

A while ago, in a grump, I tweeted something along the lines of “I’m fairly convinced that most social scientists who write about algorithms do not understand what that term means”… Provocative I know, but I was, like I said, in a grump. Rob Kitchin tweeted me back saying that he looked forward to the blogpost – well here it is – finally.

I’m afraid its not going to be a well-structured and in-depth analysis of what one may or may not mean by the word algorithm because, well, other people have already done that. What I want to offer here is an expression of the anxiety that lay behind my grumpy tweet and means of mitigating that. So, this is a post that uses other people’s work to address:

  • what is an algorithm?
  • how/should we analyse/study them?

To be totally open from the start, my principle sources here are:

So, what do we mean when we use the word ‘algorithm’?

To begin with a straight-forward answer from Paul Ford:

“Algorithm” is a word writers invoke to sound smart about technology. Journalists tend to talk about “Facebook’s algorithm” or a “Google algorithm,” which is usually inaccurate. They mean “software.”

Algorithms don’t require computers any more than geometry does. An algorithm solves a problem, and a great algorithm gets a name. Dijkstra’s algorithm, after the famed computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra, finds the shortest path in a graph. By the way, “graph” here doesn’t mean  but rather 

Or, as Rob Kitchin notes in his working paper it is (following Kowalski) “logic+control“, such that (citing Miyazaki) the term denotes a form of:

specific step-by-step method of performing written elementary arithmetic… [and] came to describe any method of systematic or automatic calculation.

This answers a simple definitional question: “what is an algorithm?” but doesn’t quite answer the question I’ve posed: “what do we mean when we use the word algorithm?”, which Ford gestures towards when suggesting journos (and one might include a lot of academics here) use the word ‘algorithm’ when they mean ‘software’. As Gillespie notes

there is a sense that the technical communities, the social scientists, and the broader public are using the word in different ways

There isn’t a single/singular meaning of the word then (of course!) and after decades of post-structuralism that really shouldn’t be a surprise… nevertheless there is a kind of discursive politics being performed when we (geographers, social scientists etc etc) invoke the term and idea of an ‘algorithm’, and we perhaps need to reflect upon that a little more than we do. I may be wrong, perhaps we just need to let the signifier/signified relation flex and evolve – my main motivation for addressing this question is that I think we do already have useful words that address what is being suggested in the use of the word ‘algorithm’ – amongst these words are: code, function (as in software function), policy, programme, protocol (e.g. Ã  la Alexander Galloway), rule and software.

What is salient about the technical definition of an algorithm to how we might use the word more broadly is the sense of a (logical) model of inferred relations between things formally defined in code that is developed through iteration towards a particular end. As Gillespie notes:

Engineers choose between them based on values such as how quickly they return the result, the load they impose on the system’s available memory, perhaps their computational elegance. The embedded values that make a sociological difference are probably more about the problem being solved, the way it has been modeled, the goal chosen, and the way that goal has been operationalised.

What quickly takes us away from simply thinking about a function defined in code is that the programmes or scripts upon which the algorithms are founded need to be validated in some way – to test their effectiveness, and this involves using test data (another word that has become fashionable). The selection of the data also necessarily has embedded assumptions, values and workarounds which, as Gillespie goes on to suggest: “may also be of much more importance to our sociological concerns than the algorithm learning from it.” The code that represents the algorithm is instantiated either within a software programme – a collection of instructions, operations, functions etc. etc. – that is bundled together as what we used to call an ‘application’ or it might exist in a ‘script’ of code that gets pulled into use as and when – for example: in the context of a website. As Gillespie argues:

these exhaustively trained and finely tuned algorithms are instantiated inside of what we might call an application, which actually performs the functions we’re concerned with. For algorithm designers, the algorithm is the conceptual sequence of steps, which should be expressible in any computer language, or in human or logical language. They are instantiated in code, running on servers somewhere, attended to by other helper applications (Geiger 2014), triggered when a query comes in or an image is scanned. I find it easiest the think about the difference between the “book” in your hand and the “story” within it. These applications embody values as well, outside of their reliance on a particular algorithm.

This is often missed when algorithms are invoked, all-too-quickly, in the discussion of contemporary phenomena that involve the use of computing in some way. Like Kitchin says in his working paper:

As a consequence, how algorithms are most often understood is very narrowly framed and lacking in critical reflection.

Indeed, I’d go further, there’s a weird sense in which some discussions of ‘algorithms’ connote the dystopian sci-fi of The Matrix, or The Terminator. Ian Bogost has gone so far as to suggest that this is a form of ‘worship’ of the idea of an ‘algorithm’, suggesting

algorithms hold a special station in the new technological temple because computers have become our favorite idols.


And as Gillespie noted in an earlier piece:

there is an important tension emerging between what we expect these algorithms to be, and what they in fact are

Yet, as with production of religious texts, there are people making decisions every step of the way in the production of software. On top of that, there were decisions made by people in all of the steps of the development and production of the other technologies and infrastructures upon which that software rely.

What we mean when we use the word ‘algorithm’ is, as Gillespie argues (much better than I), a synecdoche: “when we settle uncritically on this shiny, alluring term, we risk reifying the processes that constitute it. All the classic problems we face when trying to unpack a technology, the term packs for us”.

Calling the complex sociotechnical assemblage an “algorithm” avoids the need for the kind of expertise that could parse and understand the different elements; a reporter may not need to know the relationship between model, training data, thresholds, and application in order to call into question the impact of that “algorithm” in a specific instance. It also acknowledges that, when designed well, an algorithm is meant to function seamlessly as a tool; perhaps it can, in practice, be understood as a singular entity. Even algorithm designers, in their own discourse, shift between the more precise meaning, and using the term more broadly in this way.

How should we study algorithms?

Here, I’m not totally sure I can add much to what Kitchin has written in his working paper. This has been adroitly summarised by John Danaher on his blog, and he produced this brilliant graphic:

The challenges and methods for studying algorithms


We need to be alive to the challenge that most software we may be interested in is proprietary, although not always and we can look to repositories like GitHub for plenty of open source code, and so it may actually prove impossible to gain access to the code itself –– and here we’d really want the code of the whole programme, and perhaps the training data too. Likewise, software like any complex endeavour may well be the result of collective authorship and maintained by lots of different people. So there are complex sets of relations between people, laws, protocols, standards and many other considerations to negotiate – they are contextually embedded. Furthermore, the programmes we’re calling algorithms here actually have a hand in producing the world within which they exist –– they may bring new kinds of entities and relationships into existence, they may formulate new and different forms of spatial relation and understanding. In this sense they are ontogenetic and performative. Added to this, once ‘in the wild’ this performativity can render the kinds of outcomes of a programme unexpected and peculiar, especially once it is fed all sorts of data, adapted and adopted in unexpected ways.

How can we go about studying these kinds of socio-technical systems then? Well, rather than treat as discrete the six techniques offered by Kitchin (summarised above) – I’d argue we need to combine most of these. Even so, it may prove extremely difficult to actually gain access to code. Further, even if one might reflexively produce code and/or attempt to reverse engineer software –– some systems are the product of companies with such extensive resources that it may well prove near-impossible to do so. Where social scientists might find more traction and actually be able to make a more valuable contribution is, as Kitchin suggests, looking t the full sociotechnical assemblage. We can look at the wider institutional, legal and political apparatuses (the dispositifs) and we can certainly look at the various kinds of relation the assemblages make and how they are enrolled in performing the world they inhabit.

Make no mistake – this kinds of research is necessarily hard. I’m not sure I can imagine papers in geography journals that tie the a/b testing logs of experiments in how a given system works and commit logs to version control systems (even if you could access them!) to particular forms of experience and/or their political consequences… but it might be worth a go. Perhaps this difficulty is why we see (and I am as guilty as any of this) papers written in abstract terms, focusing on the (social) theoretical ways we can talk about these sociotechnical systems in broad terms.

Like Bogost, I can see a kind of pseudo-theological romancing of the ‘algorithm’ and the agency of software in much of what is written about it, and its sort of easy to see why – it is so abundant and yet relatively hidden. We see effects but do not see the systems that produce them:

Algorithms aren’t gods. We need not believe that they rule the world in order to admit that they influence it, sometimes profoundly. Let’s bring algorithms down to earth again.

The algorithm as synecdoche is a kind of ‘talisman’, as Gillespie argues, that reveals something of what Stiegler calls our ‘originary technicity’ – the sense in which we (humans) have always already been bound up in technology and its the forgetting and then remembering of this that forges our ongoing reconstitution (transindividuation) of ourselves.

So, I’d like to end with Kitchin’s argument:

it is clear that much more critical thinking and empirical research needs to be conducted with respect to algorithms [and the software and sociotechnical systems in which they are necessarily embedded] and their work.


It is worth noting that both Gillespie and Kitchin draw on another paper that is very much worth reading by Nick Seaver, who reminded me of this on Twitter, take a look:

Knowing Algorithms“, presented at Media in Transition 8, Cambridge, MA, April 2013 [revised 2014].

Contextualising ‘virtual’ geographies

Following on from the publication of my article in Progress in Human Geography, I wanted to post here some thoughts that didn’t quite fit into that paper but nevertheless feel like a worthwhile contextualisation of the long-running engagement with digital mediation and ideas of a ‘virtual’ or ‘cyber-‘ spaces in geography.

Discussions of alternative or transformed forms of spatiality constituted by computation have spawned a range of names and phrases for those spatial formations. As Pile argued, the descriptions of ‘cyberspace’ and ‘the virtual’ are ‘a plurality of clashing, resonating and shocking metaphors’ (Pile, 1994, page 1817). In this post I want to begin to discuss the malleable nature of our descriptions of computation, data and software. In particular it seems pertinent to examine the role of metaphors and how some geographers have addressed that role. Sawhney (1996) describes metaphors as ‘midwives’ that ease new conceptualisations of spatial experience into understanding. However, metaphors that constitute discourses are not politically neutral. If metaphors ‘do things’ as Lakoff and Johnson (2003) assert, what they ‘do’ needs to be explicitly examined.

Paul Adams, Stephen Graham and Ken Hillis all offer examinations of the role of metaphors in understanding the spatial experience of ICTs that are worth revisiting (see also: Graham, 2013):

First, Adams’ (1997) useful review of metaphors in literary treatments of computer mediation identifies three, overlapping, ‘fields’ of metaphors: ‘virtual architecture’, ‘the electronic frontier’ and ‘cyberspace’. Adams argues that, despite fears concerning ‘a metaphor’s power to corrupt’ (1997, page 167), such ‘mythical geographies’ fill in the spaces between established knowledge to form what Tuan calls the ‘fuzzy area of defective knowledge’ (Tuan, 1977, page 86).

Second, Hillis (1999) highlights a background of mysticism to metaphors utilised to describe and explore virtual reality as a ‘cyberspace’. For Hillis, many of the metaphors draw upon understandings of light. Hillis (1999) offers three types of metaphor: virtual reality as a privileged position affording ‘vision’; virtual environments as facsimiles or simulations represented through light, akin to Plato’s shadows on the cave wall, and the virtual as an ability to inhabit images as such. Both Adams (1997) and Hillis (1999) postulate a link between the types of metaphors used and the desire to affirm an elevated or omniscient perspective, drawing upon the remote gaze as a tool of imperialism (akin to Virilio, 1984) or the near-omnipotent reach of light to illustrate that desire.

Third, Graham describes the ‘powerful role of spatial and territorial metaphors’ that anchors discourses of ICTs (Graham, 1998, page 165). Graham (1998) identifies a typology of spatial metaphors through which space and place are conceptualised in relation to ICTs: ‘substitution and transcendence’, ‘co-evolution’, and ‘recombination’. Metaphors of substitution and transcendence, echoing Hillis’ (1999) critique, denote replacing physical territory with a ‘virtual’ using new technologies. A co-evolutionary perspective argues that, while remaining separate, both physical and electronic ‘spaces’ are necessarily produced together.

Finally Graham (1998) posits a re-combinative, topological, understanding of socially constructed forms of spatiality that are ‘sociotechnical’ (i.e. linkages between ‘heterogeneous’ actors, including humans, technology and others, formulate spatial experience). Graham (1998), along with Adams and Hillis, identifies the problematic form of Cartesian dualism (a mind/body split) implied by his first category, which also somewhat underlies the second, and the uncritical technological determinism that often accompanies this somewhat fanciful race away from our embodied existence.

Regardless of the apparently ephemeral or amorphous nature of the metaphorical ‘virtual’ or ‘cyberspace’, such evocations are still grounded in a resolutely material register. As Hillis (1999, pages 160-162) notes, language itself is profoundly spatial, and material, in its expression. Writing is the spatialisation of knowledge, what philosopher Bernard Stiegler calls the externalization of thought recorded as ‘tertiary retentions’ (Stiegler, 2007), most frequently orthographic writing (see: Stiegler, 1998), with different technologies of retention using space differently. The expression of ‘virtual’ spaces is, then, always already material in character. Hillis, in an argument similar to Stiegler (1998), presses further, highlighting the reciprocal, yet fragmented, relation between word and world:

language is not only a discrete, concrete thing”¦ Neither is it ephemeral, language can be thought of as an “embodied prototechnology”, both confirming us to ourselves existentially at the level of embodied voice and extending us to engage with the lived world through its symbolic affect (Hillis, 1999, page 161).

Metaphors and neologisms are, of course, not the sole preserve of geographers or, indeed, academics. Of course, much of this work speaks to broader popular (Western), late 20th century interests in ‘telematic culture’ (Ascott, 1990), the creation of ‘artificial experience’ and ‘virtual communities’ (Rheingold, 1989, 1998), and the convergence of subaltern cultures experimenting with drugs and computing (Rushkoff, 1994). Alternative, less dyadic, conceptualisations of a ‘virtual’ are also offered by geographers considering the growth of digital mediation. Although perhaps now considered somewhat dated, we might note that ‘cyberspace’ or ‘virtual space’ has not been solely evoked as an abstract alternative realm, as Kitchin (1998) has argued:

Cyberspaces are dependent upon spatial fixity, they are embodied spaces and access is unevenly distributed”¦ cyberspaces do not replace geographic spaces, nor do they destroy space and time (page 403).

Following Adams (1997, 2011), Graham (1998, 2005), Hillis (1999) and Kitchin (1998, 2011; Kitchin and Dodge, 2011) we can see how, and perhaps why, metaphors and neologisms are used to describe computer-mediated spatial experience and also how geographers have situated the agency of those terms. Earlier engagements with computation were necessarily speculative and concerned with formulating understandings of nascent or imagined technologies. However, in the last decade the growth in ownership of digital technologies has created case studies of widespread everyday use. Some of these case studies are explored in my recently published article ‘The matter of ‘virtual’ geographies‘.

Some references

Adams, Paul C., 1997, “Cyberspace and virtual places” Geographical Review 87 (2), pp. 155-171.

Adams, Paul C., 2011, “A taxonomy for communication geography” Progress in Human Geography 35 (1), pp. 37-57.

Ascott, Roy, 1990, “Is there love in the telematic embrace?” Art Journal 49 (3), pp. 241-247.

Graham, Mark, 2013, “Geography/Internet: Ethereal Alternate Dimensions of Cyberspace or Grounded Augmented Realities?” The Geographical Journal forthcoming.

Graham, Stephen, 1998, “The end of geography or the explosion of place? Conceptualising space, place and information technology” Progress in Human Geography 22 (2), pp. 165-185.

Graham, Stephen, 2005, “Software-sorted geographies” Progress in Human Geography 29 (5), pp. 562-580.

Hillis, Ken, 1999 Digital sensations: space, identity and embodiment and virtual reality. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.

Kitchin, Rob, 1998, “Towards geographies of cyberspace” Progress in Human Geography 22 (3), pp. 385-406.

Kitchin, Rob, 2011, “The programmable city” environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 38 (6), pp. 945-951.

Kitchin, Rob, Dodge, Martin, 2011 Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Lakoff, George, Johnson, Mark, 2003 Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Pile, Steve, 1994, “CyberGeography: 50 years of Environment and Planning A” Environment and Planning A 26 (12), pp. 1815-1823.

Rheingold, Howard, 1989 Virtual Reality: Exploring the Brave New Technologies of Artificial Experience and Interactive Worlds – From Cyberspace to Teledildonics. Mandarin, London.

Rheingold, Howard, 1998 The Virtual Community. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Rushkoff, Douglas, 1994 Cyberia: Life in the trenches of hyperspace Flamingo, London.

Sawhney, H, 1996, “Information superhighway: metaphors as midwives” Media, Culture and Society 18 pp. 135-155.

Stiegler, Bernard, 1998 Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. trans. Beardsworth, R., Collins, G., Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

Stiegler, Bernard, 2007, “Anamnesis and Hypomnesis: The Memories of Desire”.) Technicity. Charles University Press, Prague, pp. 15-41.

Tuan, Yi-Fu, 1977 Space and Place: The prespective of experience. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.

Virilio, Paul, 1984 War and Cinema: The logistics of perception. trans. Camiller, P., Verso, London and New York.

Stiegler on ‘immateriality’ and ‘virtual spaces’

Following on from my recent post about two new articles, I thought it apposite to highlight a couple of extended quotes from Bernard Stiegler’s work that I think offer a good critical response to the persistent use of the metaphor of ‘virtual space’ and its apparent immateriality. I am posting this as much as a reminder for myself as because I hope it is of interest to others too. I will leave commentary on these passages for another time… Continue reading “Stiegler on ‘immateriality’ and ‘virtual spaces’”

Masters Research

What follows is the Abstract to my Masters degree dissertation.

An End to Cyberspace? Metaphor, Affect and Socio-Technical Relations

Despite twenty-five years of the personal computer and a wealth of literature on all things ‘cyber-‘ the discussion of computer-mediated communication largely remains pre-figured by (misguided) binaries, such as ‘material’-‘electronic’ and ‘real’-‘virtual’. This dissertation (re)examines the metaphorical concepts enfolded in constituting computer-mediated place(s). Given the upsurge of social networking websites, this inquiry attends to the place(s) of contemporary phenomenon After Doreen Massey and Nigel Thrift I utilise prominent theories of relationality, namely Actor-Network Theory. This is situated in an understanding, through the work of philosopher Gilles Deleuze and geographers such as J-D Dewsbury and Nigel Thrift, of a ceaselessly taking-place or becoming world, significantly motivated by the affectual. Following influential work on metaphor by Lakoff and Johnson and work on socio-technical relations, by geographers such as Nick Bingham and Stephen Graham, I chart a typology of transcendental, co-evolutionary and recombinatory metaphors for the Internet, with examples from a cross-section of literature. Evaluating how these metaphors are enrolled in the conception of place(s) is achieved through a dual methodology of interviews, with expert technological commentators and practitioners, and experimental Internet-based participant observation, using I discuss the manner in which socio-technical assemblages such as MySpace can be considered place(s) through empirical evidence, arguing that a relational approach reveals a finer granularity and nuance to the production and performance of place. Interwoven through my analysis is an attention to the role of the pre-cognitive and impersonal motivations of affect. I move on to evaluate how our normative spatial metaphors orientate or map computer-mediated place(s) framed by the aforementioned typology of metaphor. This dissertation proposes an end to over-simplistic and technologically determinate notions of ‘cyberspace’ by offering a beginning – a conceptualisation of place as an intensity of socio-technical relations, which are an increasingly significant part of the intermeshing skein of networks that makes up the social world.

You can download a full copy of this dissertation. Please understand your downloading of the document as an agreement to respect the Creative Commons license it is issued under. If you are interested in this research feel free to contact me to discuss it more.