Jakob Svensson: Behind the Algorithm

Welcome to a K3 seminar with Jakob Svensson, Senior Lecturer and Docent in Media and Communication Studies, K3. The name of the talk is:

Behind the Algorithm

The talk will take place on Wednesday, April 18 at 10.15-12.00 in  room NIC 0541 (K3 Open Studio), Niagara.

Here is an abstract for the talk:

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 then we had the scandal over Microsoft’s chat program Tay that quickly turned to obscene and inflammatory language after having interacted with Twitter users. 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 research 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.

Algorithms should be understood as systems. These systems are not standalone little boxes, but massive networked ones, with sometimes hundreds of hands reaching into them, tuning, tweaking and experimenting with them. We thus need to examine the logics that guide these hands. The methodological framework is therefore inspired from the concept of media logics. For this project, the media logics framework has been adjusted and will based around five so-called “sensitizing concepts” that interact with, and inform, each other in a dynamic circuit informing the practices of programming and designing algorithms. These concepts are rules, ideals, intentions, cultures and imaginations/perceptions. It is important to underline here that these sensitizing concepts are not separate. They intersect and inform each other.

In the seminar I will present the first result of this 2 year research project (funded by the Swedish Research Council).

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