Nordic Perspectives on Algorithmic Systems: Notes from a Workshop on Metaphors and Concepts

The first meeting in our NOS-HS workshop series Nordic Perspectives on Algorithmic Systems: Concepts, Methods, and Interventions was organized on May 22 and 23 in Stockholm. The goal of the workshop series is to develop a Nordic approach to critical algorithm studies, with the first workshop focusing on coming up with metaphors and concepts that would be useful for pushing debates about algorithmic systems forward. In addition, the workshop series aims to establish a network in the Nordics for those interested in the topic of algorithm studies.

We think it is safe to say that the first workshop took some quite successful steps towards achieving these goals. We had an intense two days of brainstorming and exchanging ideas with 16 participants from Helsinki, Tampere, Stockholm and Copenhagen, representing a multitude of different fields ranging from Human-Computer Interaction and Software Development to Sociology and Philosophy of Science.

On the first day, we heard short presentations from each participant, along with introductions to specific concepts/metaphors they consider relevant for approaching and thinking about algorithmic systems. On the basis of these discussions, we collated conceptual maps of various ways to conceive of algorithms. On the second day, we discussed in pairs articles which each participant had brought along as examples of inspiring work. Further, we had a discussion about optimistic/constructive and pessimistic/critical approaches to discussing technology.

Here  are selected takeaways from our discussions, including both conceptual approaches to algorithmic systems, as well as thoughts on how to approach the debate more generally:

Control, care, and empowerment

One central issue in thinking about algorithmic systems concerns the motivations and justifications for the use of algorithms. In this respect, the distinctions between control, care and empowerment were brought into discussion as useful notions for elucidating the different logics of using algorithms. While the logic of control relates to algorithmic surveillance and the aim of governing or managing behavior, the aim inherent in the logic of care is that of supporting certain forms of behavior rather than preventing others. For instance, we discussed the work of content moderators on discussion forums, where moderators wish that automated methods could liberate them to work on fostering and guiding discussion instead of the current focus of deciding what content to delete and what to allow. The important point here is that these different aims encompass divergent justifications for the use of algorithms: while surveillance as control is often justified in terms of necessity and protection, the legitimacy of algorithmic care rests on the thriving and well-being of its subjects. Contrasting with these aims, the logic of empowerment justifies the use of algorithms in terms of performance increases and efficiency. The aim of empowerment is then grounded on ideals such as progress and development. Although empowerment aims at providing people with increased capabilities for action, its underlying principle of optimization can also become self-serving, with people turning into material in the quest for optimizing shallow and cheap quantitative metrics.

Optimization and resilience

The concept of optimization was discussed in particular by reference to the work of Halpern and others [1] on smart cities. In developing algorithms with the aim of optimization, improving the system’s performance in terms of quantified metrics can become an end in itself, which supersedes conscious planning and deliberation in organizing action. Optimal performance carries with it a rhetorical force, which can work to legitimate algorithmic management of increasingly many aspects of life. As such, as Orit Halpern and others note, optimization serves to justify the use of notions such as “smartness” in relation to systems which seek to find optimal solutions to predefined problems. Thus, from the perspective of optimization, the crucial question to ask about algorithmic systems might not concern their performance in the technical sense, but rather the choices made when defining the system’s goals and means of finding optimal solutions.

Another notion connected to the idea of autonomously operating “smart” systems was that of resilience, which denotes the system’s capacity to change in order to survive through external perturbations [1]. While the stability or robustness of algorithmic systems is their ability to maintain fixed functioning upon external influences, resilience concerns the temporal dimension and the lifespan of these systems, and their ability to evolve and adapt their behavior to “live” through changing environmental conditions. The resilience of an algorithmic system then depends not only on the ability to find optimal solutions to problems, but also on the ability to maintain the system’s operation. In this work, human efforts in repair and maintenance are likely to be crucial.

Repair, temporality, and decay of software

A recurrent theme concerned algorithms as implemented in software, and the temporal dimension in the life-course of software systems. The issue of the temporality of software becomes central through the gradual decay of legacy technologies and the care required to keep them operational. Repair work is also involved as part of the lifetime of algorithms, with hardware and software systems implemented in evolving programming languages and as part of divergent organizational settings, consequently requiring constant maintenance and monitoring [cf. 2]. The notion of repair connects with multiple themes discussed during the workshop, for instance optimizing algorithmic processes and the role of human agency in algorithmic systems. As such, human-algorithm interactions can be thought of as involving not only a continuous process of interpretation, but also work in correcting and explaining errors and idiosyncrasies in results, coming up with workaround solutions to adapt tools to diverging goals, and maintaining software and hardware implementations operational.

Human agency and gaming in algorithmic systems

One of the topics brought up was the question of human agency in relation to the algorithmic systems. We discussed that systems should be rehumanized by dragging the human work going into these systems back to the spotlight, making visible the labor that is required to maintain, train and develop different kinds of systems. On the other hand, algorithms are also used to limit and make possible certain forms of actions raising questions about what people can do with technology to expand their possibilities, and how technology can also be used to limit the potential of humans. One suggested way to approach the relationship that algorithms have with humans was to focus on the interaction between them – we might learn a lot from observing empirically what happens when humans encounter algorithmic systems.

Further, we discussed human agency towards these systems through concepts of games and algorithmic resistance. These approaches highlight the human potential to find vulnerabilities or spaces of intervention, and to act against or otherwise manipulate systems, be it for personal gain or with an activist aim of creating a more just world. Whatever the reason for acting against the system is, a question arises: What does it mean to win against an algorithm? So-called victories against these systems may be short-lived, as games or resistance do not happen in a vacuum: It is possible to win a battle but lose the war. This discussion highlighted how algorithmic systems, just like human beings, are situated in the wider society and its networks of relationships.

Power, objectivity, and bureaucracy

The notions of power and objectivity of algorithmic systems were discussed on multiple different occasions during the workshop. These concepts are often brought up in the critical data and algorithmic studies literature as well, with critics arguing against utopian hopes of unbiased knowledge production [e.g. 3], and pointing to the far-reaching societal consequences of algorithmic data processing and classification [e.g. 4]. However, during the workshop, the questions of objectivity and power of algorithms were themselves questioned. For instance, debates about the power of algorithms would benefit from increased clarity, which could potentially be achieved by connecting the literature with extant accounts of power in political science, such as Stephen Lukes’ [5] theory of the three faces of power.

Similarly, the issue of algorithmic objectivity can take on several different meanings depending on whether the discussion focuses on hidden biases in data production, or for instance the mechanical objectivity [6] of algorithmic procedures. One particularly interesting metaphor for thinking about issues of objectivity in algorithmic systems is that of bureaucracy [e.g. 7], and the sense of objectivity imbued on action and decision-making through the establishment of rigid, explicit, and seemingly impartial rules [8]. The quest for such procedural objectivity [9] is likely to be present in efforts to automate decision-making in algorithmic systems as well. Comparing the effects of explicit rules on power relations within bureaucracies with algorithmic procedures in organizations could be one way to get a grasp on how power works within algorithmic systems.

Optimism, pessimism, and the notion of algorithm

Given the multitude of different approaches present during the workshop, the question arose of the usefulness of the notion of “algorithm” itself in thinking about the technological and social phenomena we are interested in. While algorithms and algorithmic systems were the backdrop for our discussion, it became evident that the phenomena we were discussing are at once broader and more multifaceted. While we started with algorithmic systems, we ended up discussing themes such as collaboration and preconditions of human work, motivations and justifications for action, maintenance and design of technology, temporality, and discontinuities between interpretive and formal processes. This is likely as it should be, given that the aim of the workshop was to think about metaphors for discussing algorithms. However, the variety and scope of the perspectives testifies to the fuzziness of the notion of algorithm, and calls attention to the need for delineating and clarifying the central concepts which figure in discussions about algorithmic systems and their connections to more longstanding discussions in various disciplines.

Related to these observations, our discussion on the second day about the critical/pessimistic and constructive/optimistic attitudes for approaching algorithms called attention to the various ways in which understandings of technology can be oversimplifying. In particular, the issue of “naive” optimism and technological solutionism, often attributed to the developers of technology in critical treatments, was called into question. While critical approaches are indeed important, self-sustained discussions about the limitations and problems of technology hold the danger of oversimplifying the understanding of the “other side”. Such simplifications are unlikely to foster fruitful engagement with communities engaged in developing new technologies. For us, this emphasizes the importance of reflexive thinking that take seriously the risk of  “naive” criticism of critical accounts of technology and does not try to situate social scientists as outside of the troubles of algorithmic systems.

By: Juho Pääkkönen, Jesse Haapoja & Airi Lampinen

The next workshop in the series will take place in the autumn in Copenhagen, with a focus on approaches and methods.

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[1] Halpern, O. et al. (2017). The smartness mandate: Notes towards a critique. Grey Room 68.

[2] Jackson, S. (2014). Rethinking repair. In T. Gillespie, P. Boczkowski and K. Foot (eds.), Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society. MIT Press.

[3] Gillespie, T. (2014). The relevance of algorithms. In T. Gillespie, P. Boczkowski and K. Foot (eds.), Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society. MIT Press.

[4] Ananny, M. (2016). Toward an Ethics of Algorithms: Convening, Observation, Probability, and Timeliness. Science, Technology & Human Values 41(1).

[5] Lukes, S. (1974). Power: A radical view. London and New York: Macmillan.

[6] Daston, L. and Galison, P. (1992). The Image of Objectivity. Representations 40.

[7] Crozier, M. (1963). The bureaucratic phenomenon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[8] Porter, T. (1995). Trust in numbers: The pursuit of objectivity in science and public life. Princeton University Press.

[9] Douglas, H. (2004). The Irreducible Complexity of Objectivity. Synthese 138.

Digital technologies, data analytics and social inequality

We were recently involved in organizing a working group on what might be called “digital inequalities” at the Annual Finnish Sociology Conference. Based on the working group, we reflect on the relationship between digital technologies and social inequalities, and on the role of critical scholarship in addressing the issue.

To paraphrase Kranzberg’s (1986) well-known first law of technology, while digital technologies and their capability to produce data are not a force for good or ill, they are not neutral either. With the increasing use of data analytics and new digital technologies, as well as the ever-intensifying hype over them, it is extremely important to examine the connection between technological and social divides

A rich body of research on “digital divides” has focused on the issues of unequal access to technology and differences in its usage (e.g. van Dijk, 2013). With the aim of expanding the view beyond the ideas of access and usage, Halford and Savage (2010) have proposed the concept of “digital social inequality”, emphasizing the interlinking between social disadvantages and digital technologies. This means that the development, use and effects of digital technologies are often related to social categories such as gender, race/ethnicity, age and social class

Examining the divisions connected to the use of data, Andrejevic (2014) points out “the big data divide”, a concept with which he refers to the asymmetric relationship between those who are able to produce and use large quantities of data, and those who are the targets of data collection. This divide highlights not only access to data and the means of making use of data, but also differential access to ways of thinking about and using data. D’lgnazio and Klein (2019) further discuss the power structures inherent in the collection and usage of data, pointing out that these structures are often made invisible and thus taken as an objective viewpoint of how “the numbers speak for themselves”. Through many empirical examples D’lgnazio and Klein demonstrate that even the choices of what topics data is collected on, analyzed and communicated rest on power relations in terms of whose voices and interest are represented and whose are marginalized

Partly inspired by the above-mentioned research, we recently organized a working group at the Annual Finnish Sociology Conference, The Shifting Divides of Our Digital Lives, to discuss old and new forms of inequalities, the reactions they provoke, and their societal consequences. To guide our presenters, we posed some additional questions: What hinders or facilitates equal participation in the digital society? How are social institutions adapting to digital change? What forms of civic engagement and activism arise given digital society’s asymmetries?

Here we summarize selected findings of presentations that provided insights into how digital technologies and the use of data analytics shape our differential opportunities for social participation even when we, as citizens, might not be fully aware of it.

In her presentation Contested technology: Behavior-based insurance in critical data studies, Maiju Tanninen (University of Tampere) pointed out the many concerns that data studies literature has identified in connection to the use of self-tracking technologies in personalized insurance. These include the possibility of data-based discrimination, heightened surveillance, and control of clients’ behavior. However, Tanninen argued that while these critiques paint a rather dystopian picture of the field, they are largely focused on the US context, they fail to differentiate between insurance types, and are often lacking in empirical engagement. In practice, the use of self-tracking devices for the development of personalized insurance looks often doubtful, amongst other reasons due to poor quality of data. Tanninen pointed out that in order for critical research on the topic to be constructive, and to better understand the benefits of these technologies and offer new insights, we need empirically grounded research in the European and more specifically Finnish contexts.

In his presentation Ageing migrants’ use of digitalised public services: Ethnographic study, Nuriiar Safarov (University of Helsinki) emphasized the need for intersectional perspective in studying access and utilization of e-services among different groups of migrants. In his doctoral project, Safarov examines the impact of the digitalization of public services in Finland on the group of older Russian-speaking migrants who permanently live in Finland. Safarov pointed out that this specific group of migrants may face particular barriers to access e-services not only because of their age, but also because of lack of language skills and social networks. Empirical work on such groups can, in turn, offer insight into the interplay of digital-specific and more ‘traditional’ social divides.

In her presentation Facebook Groups interaction affecting access to nature, Annamari Martinviita (University of Oulu) compared a popular Finnish Facebook group on the topic of national parks, and the official information website of Metsähallitus. Martinviita demonstrated that while both platforms might aim to be inclusive when they advertise access and exploration of nature, in practice they might produce various divides by means of presenting and constructing ‘correct’ ways of visiting national parks.

In their presentation Political orientation, political values and digital divides – How does political orientation associate with the political use of social media? Ilkka Koiranen and colleagues (University of Turku) demonstrated that while social media provides new ways for political participation, there are significant differences between political parties in how their supporters use social media for political purposes. The research was based on a nationally representative survey dataset. The results showed that newer political movements with younger and more educated supporters representing post-material values are more successful in social media, echoing also previous findings in the digital divides research.

In his presentation How data activism allies with firms to seek equal participation in the digital society, Tuukka Lehtiniemi (University of Helsinki) discussed the case of MyData, a data activism initiative aiming to enhance citizens’ agency by providing them with the means to control the use of their personal data, in an attempt to address injustices related equal societal participation. Various interest parties are involved in MyData, including technology-producing firms that seek market and policy support for their products. Lehtiniemi argued that particular ways to frame MyData’s objectives are employed to support this involvement. While it is important to develop alternative imaginaries for the data economy, a central question remains to be resolved: how to move from abstract concepts such as citizen centricity and data agency to actual alternatives that challenge dominant imaginaries of data’s value.

These presentations highlight that the promises of equal participation so often associated with digital technologies and use of data analytics are often challenging to reclaim in practice. If approached without care, they may reproduce and extend existing patterns of biases, injustices or discrimination.

Thus, it is important to keep in mind that as digital technologies and data analytics are forged by humans in specific societal settings and power relations, these technologies contain traces of societal conditions in which they are coined and manufactured. Consequently, it is salient to explore what kinds of potentially biased assumptions are embedded in these technologies used so extensively in today’s society. This is why we think that it is urgent to advance critical approaches and support collective citizen actions to create and implement technologies and data analytics that improve opportunities for all

At the same time, as some of the presentations in the working group also indicated, criticism by itself may not lead to constructive input in the development and usage of digital technologies. We should therefore not only point out the ways how digital technologies and data analytics, their current usage, and the potential future trajectories can bring up or exacerbate societal problems. In addition, we should engage in conceptual and empirical research that can help identify preferable alternatives and steer technological developments toward societally more desirable and sustainable ones

By: Marta Choroszewicz, Marja Alastalo and Tuukka Lehtiniemi

Choroszewicz is a Postdoc Researcher at University of Eastern Finland, Alastalo is a University Lecturer at University of Eastern Finland, and Lehtiniemi is a Doctoral Candidate at University of Helsinki.

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References:

Andrejevic, M (2014) The big data divide. International Journal of Communication, 8: 1673–1689. https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/2161

D’lgnazio, C and Klein, L (2019) Data Feminism. MIT Press Open. Available at: https://bookbook.pubpub.org/data-feminism

Halford, S and Savage, M (2010) Reconceptualising digital social inequality. Information, Communication and Society 13(7): 937–955. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2010.499956

Kranzberg, M (1986) Technology and history: “Kranzberg’s laws“. Technology and Culture, 27(3): 544–560. https://doi.org/10.2307/3105385

Van Dijk, JAGM (2013) A theory of the digital divide. In: Ragnedda, M., & Muschert, G. W. (Eds.) The digital divide: The Internet and social inequality in international perspective. Routledge, 36–51.

‘Digitalization’ at Sociology Days: does ‘it’ exist and should we study ‘it’?

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As part of the Finnish Sociology Days 2017, Rajapinta members Tuukka and Veikko organized a workshop on ‘Digitalization of Societies and Methods’. We wanted to discuss both ‘digitalization’ in terms of societal change and the ‘digitalization of methods’, that is, new digital and computational methodologies and (‘big’) datasets and their possibilities. We wanted to recognize that these are two different viewpoints largely driven by the same societal developments (‘digitalization’).

We believe that all social research must include the digital, but at the same time we must study the specificities of digital life: in what ways does the digital affect the social? How does the digitalization of everyday life, consumption and work affect our ways of life? On the other hand, Big Data and Computational Social Science are shaping social research, but are largely discussed by non-sociologists. With great data and method opportunities come some problems as well: how to get data scientists and social scientists to discuss with and understand each other, or should we rather teach digital methods to sociologists and sociological thinking to data scientists?

Our participants provided some preliminary answers to these questions. Many papers touched on the topic of whether ‘digitalization’ or ‘the digital’ is something that should be studied as is; ie. is ‘the digital’ actually something new or is it just another medium through which the same social structures, patterns and behaviour take place that used to, before ‘digitalization’, so to speak. To some extent, both are true, but in different cases and situations.

Screenshot 2017-03-28 17.01.28

In Veikko Eranti‘s presentation on citizen participation projects online and offline, largely the same things are happening in both media. Getting citizens to participate more has been a primary objective for many Western polities recently, and efforts have included both offline forms of participation (such as participatory budgeting) and online initiatives (such as online citizens’ initiative portals). But both have their caveats: if the initiative is designed to bolster tokenistic representation on everyday matters without true potential for change in any structures, what we get is citizens complaining on mundane issues rather than any meaningful participation(s).

Screenshot 2017-03-28 17.03.58But Mikael Brunila‘s presentation on the online spreading of the Soldiers of Odin extreme right brand (of which there is a great blog post here!) shows that the digital and the physical not always go hand in hand: something digital might not reflect something physical, in terms of political action. Still, online activism is not just ‘clicktivism’: spread of radicalist ideas does have real consequences whether or not they are accompanied by ‘boots on the ground’.

And Zhen Im‘s paper shows that digitalization has some very concrete structural societal effects in the shape of creating widespread economic and cultural precarity which partly explains the surge of the Western populist radical right (a thesis of ‘digitalization losers’ complementing that of ‘globalization losers’).

FTPTySC_Moreover, Salla-Maaria Laaksonen‘s work provides insight into how digital tools offer new methods of mobilization for anti-racist social movements as well, which may use social media to spread a ‘carnevalization’ of a physical event (an anti-immigrant street patrol confronted by humoristic ‘clown patrols’, the ‘Loldiers of Odin’). These tools for social movement mobilization are so concrete that state actors sometimes feel they have to intervene, as Markku Lonkila‘s presentation stated in the case of Russian political opposition and direct state repression that was directed against it. And they are used by a multiplicity of political actors: the logic of hybrid media also allows anti-immigration activists to question ‘official’ truth narratives and produce ‘counterknowledge’, ‘alternative facts’ and ‘post-truth politics’, as analysed by Tuukka Ylä-Anttila, by combining topic modeling with interpretive frame analysis.

Screenshot 2017-03-28 17.10.24

Also in regards to corporate use of individuals’ data, not just political actors, citizens are reacting to perceived misuse of their data and claiming ownership of that data, as Tuukka Lehtiniemi‘s paper assessed. And while studying these partly old, partly new phenomena, there are also new ethical challenges we have to take into account, like Aleksi Hupli argued.

All in all, we hope that both taking into account the digitalization of society and usage of digital methods will become more and more self-evident in sociology rather than a curiosity. While they are distinct phenomena, they are driven by same societal changes, which should be understood in all social research; rather than a separate ‘sub-field’ of digital or computational sociology.