An Algorithmic Walk

by Morten Jensen Øllgaard

This week’s seminar challenged the participants to devise an algorithm that could act as a tour guide for the situated STS seminar. Our first instruction was to meet at the Martyrs Memorial, at the intersection of St Giles, Magdalen Street and Beaumont Street in Oxford. We managed to meet somewhere on the south side of the Memorial at the usual time at 4.30pm last Thursday.

Google’s obscure algorithm

First, Malte Ziewitz gave us a short briefing on his research on the practices of search engine optimisation and explained how an entire industry has developed thanks to Google’s obscure algorithm. The complexity of the algorithm running Google’s search engine makes it difficult for ordinary people and businesses to figure out what the algorithm actually does and how to achieve a good ranking on Google. Given the importance of a good ranking many businesses, hire consultants who are specialized in search engine optimisation to help them perform better in various searches.

I decided to see if I could find out just how big a share of the market for search engines Google’s has, trying to understand the importance of a good ranking on Google. I ‘googled’ “search engine market share” and got 55.400.000 results in 0.18 seconds! What I could discern from the different homepages I found via Google was that Google’s global market share is probably more than 80%, whereas Google’s market share in the U.S. is approximately 65% (some uncertainty arises here because the Americans tend to mix up what is global and American). This little exercise made me realise the difficulty in verifying these numbers, as the great many different sites that turned up in my search used different numbers and statistics. I must also admit that I did not care to go beyond the first page of my Google search, anticipating that I would not find a more authoritative answer among the remaining 55.399.990 results, just more numbers. (Actually, I cannot remember the last time I went beyond the first page on a Google search…) In this case Google’s algorithm ranked certain homepages over others, so the question is how we should evaluate this algorithmic intervention? Was it good, bad or neither of the two?

Can algorithms be wrong?

On the seminar’s reading list was an interesting blog post by Tarleton Gillespie, discussing if algorithms can be wrong (link). The blog post uses the dispute over why Occupy Wall Street did not make Twitter’s trends list as a starting point for discussing potential political and moral consequences of algorithmic interventions. The question is: was Occupy Wall Street censored and deliberately removed from the trends list or was it simply not trendy according to Twitter’s algorithmic definitions? We do not know as Twitter has declined to disclose its trend algorithm to protect its business and keep people from speculating in creating trends (that are not real trends, whatever that is). Would it have made a difference if Occupy Wall Street had made it on to Twitter’s trends list? The people behind Occupy Wall Street seem to think so.

I found the comments attached to Gillespie’s blog post to be both very interesting and entertaining as they represent different stands on the issue. In general, the commentators agree that the ‘algorithm reality’ is a particular perspective or view on what is trendy, but their agreement ends here. One comment stipulates that Twitter’s algorithm is a messy and complex piece of software developed over the years and consequently no one should be held accountable for the actions of the algorithm. Some discuss the technical possibilities of constructing so-called ‘open algorithms’ that promise less bias, abuse and misunderstandings. Others do not see what the fuss is all about, as they find Twitter’s trends to be mundane and unimportant. Finally, there is one person claiming it is all one big conspiracy as Twitter, Facebook, Google etc. are all controlled by the wealthy elite, who do whatever they can to reduce visibility of anything they do not like. This commentator offers us a red truth pill and points to parts of the Internet, which do not show up on Google’s algorithm reality.

The victory of the minimax algorithm

The second item on the reading list was an article by Nathan Ensmenger titled “Is chess the drosophila of artificial intelligence? A social history of an algorithm”. The paper explores the link between the game of chess and the development of artificial intelligence (AI). Starting in the 1970’s and up to the defining moment when Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov in 1997, Ensmenger demonstrates how chess became the experimental technology within the AI research practices. In that respect chess is similar to Drosophila, which was the experimental technology of the genetic sciences.

Both the game of chess and the record-keeping communities of chess players turned out to be a good match for AI researchers. Chess was perceived to be a game that requires some “thinking”. Simultaneously, it is a finite game with a finite number of positions and moves, ensuring the game will eventually end in a conclusive way (win, draw, or loss). In the early stages of the development of the chess computer, Ensmenger tells us, there were two competing algorithmic principles. The ‘Type-A’ algorithm, also called the minimax algorithm, which uses a brute-force method, and the competing ‘Type-B’, which was considered more “human” as it used heuristics to make decisions, trimming the decision tree by privileging certain branches over others. In the end, the minimax algorithm prevailed despite the fact that it was considered to be an inaccurate reflection of the ways in which human beings played chess. However, the minimax algorithm turned out to be fastest way to reach the goal set by the AI community: to beat the best human chess player. To cut it short, Ensmenger’s point is (a) it could have been otherwise and (b) that software algorithms like minimax or Twitter’s trends and Google search are parts of heterogeneous environments, therefore it is meaningless to isolate these algorithms from their social, economic, and political contexts.

The good walking algorithm

Both Gillespie and Ensmenger conclude that we need to develop a language and methodologies for studying and speaking about algorithmic interventions. It was against this background that we were asked to discuss and devise an algorithm that could act as a tour guide for our situated seminar.

Taking a walk around Oxford for about an hour seems a simple task, but having to put it on an algorithm form was a reminder that practical everyday activities like walking entail things that are difficult to articulate, especially in an algorithm. This ethnomethodological lesson was frustrating as it turned out to be quite hard to create an operational algorithm suitable for our purpose.

A complicated crossing

Our discussion was centred on two main topics: (a) the algorithm had to provide a decision rule, which could produce a definitive output and (b) it had to be something we could remember. We came up with a walking algorithm consisting of two main components:

  1. The intersection rule: We would toss a coin at every intersection we encountered. If the result were heads, we should walk to the right. Tails and we would walk to the left.
  2. The pub rule: We would enter the third pub encountered on our path.

The coin flipOther rules were suggested but they were either non-operational or conflicted with other interests. The application of the walking algorithm rules where subject to some discussion. For instance, there was some debate over what constitutes a proper intersection. The different interpretations were clearly influenced by the different interests of the participants. Some wanted to attend a lecture at 6pm at Green Templeton College, nobody was interested in walking all the way to Banbury, and all of us wanted to experience an algorithmic walk. Whether it was conspiracy, luck, or just really good design, the algorithm managed to devise a route that took us around the city and ended at a pub, leaving enough time to have a beer and be at Green-Templeton at 6pm.

The algorithmic route

Here is the route devised by the walking algorithm:

The route

I can warmly recommend taking an algorithmic walk if you get the chance, as it is good fun and interesting at the same time.

This session was part of the ongoing reading group Encountering Science and Technology Studies: Situated Seminars. Rather than discussing readings in the confines and comfort of a seminar room, we immerse ourselves in locations that speak to the issues at hand. For upcoming sessions, please check the programme.

The (eighth) STS Talk-Walk: Visualising – what is it to visualise?

by Andreas Birkbak

The eighth installation of the STS Talk-Walks revolved around the theme of visualisations and visualising. What practical work goes into creating visualizations and making them travel? Who, which or what is actually being visualized? What are the risks involved in visualizing? How come that ‘visualization’ has gained such currency? Has it, actually?

Whether it was due to the all-too-familiar visualisation of ‘heavy rain showers’ on the BBC Weather homepage or not (the grey icon almost scared this writer off), the turnout was not overwhelming this time. However, the happy three that ventured out in the rain were rewarded with great conversational depth and a very tolerable amount of rain. Here follows a necessarily incomplete and biased story of how it went, but really this image says it all (or does it?):

A talk-walk visualization.

Walking downstream on the Thames Path from Said Business School, we started by noting how the term ‘visualisation’ is claimed by a confusing collective of actors. It is taken to mean anything from diagrams that sum up texts or ideas to digital stepping stones that have become integrated into how scientists proceed in laboratories. It was suggested that while this diversity makes it hard to run smooth conferences under the visualisation banner, it could also be cast as a powerful unifying concept. Further to this, one participant pointed out how a visualisation in itself can work as a focal point around which people with different interests are able to gather. Interestingly, our shared everyday language also seems to contain a throng of hints to the visual, as is for example ‘illustrated’ when politicians talk of the need for ‘transparent’ institutions and ‘clear’ policy making.

Later, a halfway pint at the cosy Isis Farm House became instrumental in discussing the concept of affordances and the ontological status of those environments that present themselves visually to us. None of the participants were entirely comfortable employing the notion of affordances (which has also been used by a very diverse set of writers), but it was useful for trying to get at what it is that might make visualisations appear so powerful in comparison to for example texts. Perhaps there is something more immediate about the way that we relate to the visual? This argument was only hesitantly accepted, though, with some unexpecting readers suggesting that they reacted in a highly emotional and instinctive way to the final passages of the novel ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy. In this case the text seemed to have powers equal to the most arresting (in the Barthean sense) pieces of visual art.

During the walking and talking, we several times found ourselves reflecting on the recent InSIS conference Visualisation in the age of computerisation. For example, the keynote by Peter Galison was useful for thinking about how different styles of attaching truthfulness to scientific visualising have emerged over the last three centuries. The idea came up that if digital visualisations are gaining currency in our times, it might have to do with the classic statistical logic of attaching value to representations that sum up large amounts of data.

It turned out that more than one of the talk-walkers were doing current work in which they encountered the practicalities of visualizing, so this occasion to discuss was warmly welcomed. Whether some of the thoughts that were generated at the talk-walk can be transferred from the field of the Thames Path to the field in which visualising work is carried out remains to be seen.

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 22 July 2011.

The (seventh) STS Talk-Walk: Spinning – what is it to spin a topic?

by Malte Ziewitz

The first STS Talk-Walk this term took us downstream along the Thames to the Isis Farmhouse. It also challenged us to think hard about ‘spinning’: what is it to spin a topic? How have you spun your research in recent papers, talks and presentations? What were the practicalities involved? What did you find easy/difficult/challenging/etc. about it? Is there an ethics of spinning? How useful is it to talk about ‘spinning’ as opposed to ‘framing’ or ‘turning’?

Spinning like a spider?

As usual, the conversations were diverse and touched upon a myriad of aspects, thoughts and stories. In fact, it seemed that the theme of ‘spinning’ could be spun in many different ways. So here is a short and highly selective list of ideas and associations that travelled with us along the Thames.

  • What does it practically take to spin an issue? Jasper told a story about the candidacy of Michael Ignatieff in the Canadian federal elections and how it was spun by different political groups. While some argued that a well-educated leader with international reputation would be the right person to advance Canadian politics, others portrayed him as a stranger and outsider, who had long lost ties with his country and ‘common Canadians’. It was interesting to see how the different spins variously mobilized objects like ‘common Canadians’ or ‘international challenges’ to present their version of the world and spin a web of carefully crafted realities.
  • Also the ethics of spinning figured prominently. While some thought that ‘spinning’ already comes with strong connotations of dishonesty and betrayal, others suggested that it is the very idea of a fact (and not just a perspective on it) which is achieved in the process of spinning. At any rate, it turned out to be productive to think about what counts as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ spinning — and what it takes to make these arguments.
  • Some wondered about the different meanings the word ‘spinning’ has adopted in other languages. In German, for example, the verb ‘spinnen‘ can refer to the activity of threading or weaving a web, but is also used to denote the state of ‘being bonkers’ (as in the famous line from the Asterix cartoons, ‘Die spinnen, die Römer.‘ = ‘These Romans are crazy.’).
  • The longer we talk-walked, the less certain we were about who, which or what is actually spinning what, which or whom. Tanja told a story about a recent press release that was issued about her research on neuromarketing. While the press release had emphasized the generally critical stance of the project towards the currency of all things ‘neuro’, it turned out to be received quite differently. In fact, the project was presented as ‘cutting-edge’ neuromarketing research itself, and sentences indicating ethnographic distance were simply edited out in re-publications. As a consequence, people started e-mailing with praise for the interesting project and the need to advance the field of neuromarketing. While a lot more complex, the story showed that spinning cannot simply be credited to the magic craft of a few spin doctors or political consultants, but rather appears as a messy and unruly process with unpredictable outcomes. Spinning, in this sense, means becoming part of and engaging with an issue — if we like it or not.
  • All this led us to speculate that spinning may not be the exception to a rule, but rather a useful trope to talk about the activity (and politics) of doing research generally. What if everything is somehow spinning — and what kind of spin would that be?

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 17 June 2011. More info here. If you have an idea for a topic, please let us know.

The (sixth) STS Talk-Walk: Concluding – what is it to conclude?

by Malte Ziewitz

What is it to conclude a paper, book or essay? How do we end a piece of research? How to say goodbye to our readers? The sixth STS Talk-Walk this academic year focused on something that is not usually discussed in research: the ‘conclusions’, ‘endings’ and ‘outlooks’ that can be found at the end of our texts.

A classic ending with limited applicability in STS research.

As usual, the discussions touched on many different aspects. One focus was on different styles of concluding and how we might use them in our research. How do we want to part from our readers? Do we always need to present explicit findings? Or are there ways to conclude differently? Chandrika alerted us to Ashis Nandy’s account of an incident that took place in 1947 during the time of partition in the Indian Punjab region. In his paper The invisible holocaust and the journey as an exodus [pdf], Nandy tells the story of how Harbans Singh, son of a fanatic Sikh, took care of and married Nawab Bibi, a Muslim woman whose family had been killed by Sikhs. In 1949, however, after the bloodshed had stopped, the authorities took away Nawab Bibi. Under the official ‘repatriation’ policy, she was brought to Pakistan as a ‘displaced Muslim”. Desperate to find her, Harbans took on the name Barkat Ali and assumed a new identity as a cloth dealer in Lahore. According to a local newspaper, Barkat Ali eventually managed to trace Nawab Bibi through official records. As Nandy concludes in his account (p. 326):

The newspaper does not tell us if Barkat Ali, nee Harbans Singh, son of the feared Sikh fanatic Bhan Singh, and Nawab Bibi, the victimised Muslim woman whose whole family had died in the hands of Sikhs, lived happily ever afterwards. But frankly, I would like to believe that they do.

The story triggered further thoughts about the possibility of open endings. Some remembered experimental television programmes from the 1990s when viewers could vote with telephone calls how they would like the film to end. Others pointed out that most major movie productions actually produce alternative endings and test them with ‘representative’ audiences.

All this brought up the question of how much we can expect our readers to do in academic writing. Why do so many people feel uncomfortable when they are denied the certainty of clear and unambiguous findings? And how might this uncomfortableness be turned into something edifying and productive? What counts as a ‘strong’ conclusion, and for whom? Isn’t every conclusion also a beginning? And wouldn’t it be good to think about conclusions as moments of reflection: stepping back from the text and commenting on what it might already have achieved?

Luckily, this talk-walk had a very happy ending. When we returned to Saïd Business School, not only had the sun come out after a rather rainy day. We also had the pleasure to experience Andreas’ excellent baking skills and were invited over to his flat for coffee, tea and homemade Scandinavian Kladdkaka.

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 15 April 2011. More info here.

The (fourth) STS Talk-Walk: Travelling – how to make our work travel?

by Malte Ziewitz

The first STS Talk-Walk of the year revolved around the issue of travelling: how to make our work travel? This turned out to be a concern not just for the master and doctoral students among us, but also the post-docs and professors. What is it to ‘reach’ an audience and be ‘understood’? What do we want our research to do? Who do we relate to and how? Lots of food for thought thanks to the Amsterdam group, who had shared the topic on their blog.

The 'Travellers': Fredrik, Andreas, Malte, Torben, Helene, Cristina and (right behind you) Chandrika

The 'travellers': Fredrik, Andreas, Malte, Torben, Helene, Cristina and (right behind you) Chandrika

To give you an idea of what this was about, here are three random issues we discussed while walking:

  • Work doesn’t need to be written up and published to start travelling. Already asking a question in an interview (or asking for an interview) can be a way to spread ideas and foster new relationships.
  • Who to relate to in our work? The ‘big shots’ in the field or rather unknown younger scholars? While some expressed their frustration with reading the 87th reinterpretation of ‘Pandora’s Hope’ and preferred to learn about the potentially better fitting work of recent graduates, others were skeptical of abandoning big names entirely since it may help researchers get noticed in the first place.
  • A final observation concerned the ways in which we managed (or did not manage) to make our own work travel during the talk-walk. Although there always is a cross-cutting theme, we usually spend at least a few minutes to tell our respective conversation partners what we are currently working on. While some of these accounts seem to have travelled well, others caused frowning and confusion. This led some of us to turn the issue into a topic and try out different ways of telling their stories.

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 18 February 2011, 2pm. More info here.

The (third) STS Talk-Walk: Silencing – what is it to silence?

by Malte Ziewitz

Our final STS Talk-Walk this year led us into the frosty greens of Port Meadow. The topic turned out to be strangely appropriate for a walk in the empty Oxfordshire countryside: silence.

Thames Path

Thames Path, only seconds before the talk-walkers arrive.

Silence figured in many different ways in our discussions. Silence as a concern for those who have no voice or lack the capacity to articulate themselves. Silence as a resource for understanding the relationship between ourselves and others. Silence as an obligation to not say everything that could be said. Silence as something that can be done as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Silence as something we can remain silent about.

Questions were raised about how to deal with ‘silent’ interview partners. How to make sense of and enact such silence in our transcripts and research reports? Some of us were wondering how management tools promote a certain view of the world and ‘silence’ others. If every account privileges some, but suppresses other realities, what is the point of thinking about silence at all? Others struggled with a ‘wall of silence’ they hit in their fieldwork and discussed how this could be made productive (as opposed to being filed under ‘access denied’ in the methods section). Again others got stuck on the example of Wikileaks, which triggered some lively discussion about ‘silence’, ‘absence’ and ‘secrecy’. And, finally, what do we do with things that cannot be told? When do we need to stay silent?

A number of papers were referenced during the talk-walk. Here are three of them:

  • Lynch, M. (1999), ‘Silence in Context: Ethnomethodology and Social Theory’, Human Studies, 22 (2/4), 211-33.
  • Star, S. L. and Bowker, G. C. (2007), ‘Enacting silence: Residual categories as a challenge for ethics, information systems, and communication’, Ethics and Information Technology, 9 (4), 273-80.
  • Rappert, B. (2011), ‘Revealing and concealing secrets in research: the potential of the absent’, Qualitative Research, 10, 571-87.

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 21 January 2011. Click here to learn more.

The (second) STS Talk-Walk: Storying – what is it to tell a story?

by Malte Ziewitz

What is it to tell a story? And how does this relate to the different kinds of research we are doing? Once again, a group of brave scholars set out for a two-and-a-half-hour STS Talk-Walk in the English countryside to discuss these and other challenging questions. In addition to the InSIS contingent, a number of people from other departments and universities joined us this time. Andreas, Lauren and Fadhila had made it over from the Oxford Internet Institute, and Andy had come all the way from Durham.

Dramatis personae

Dramatis personæ: STS scholars in the countryside

As usual, the talk-walk triggered interesting thoughts. One example were the ways in which storying turned out to be a useful trope for thinking about all kinds of research accounts. Story-telling, it was argued, is not just relevant for ethnography and what are sometimes called ‘qualitative’ approaches, but also more formal methods like surveys, econometrics or social network analysis. Each of these cases requires a set of characters, a plot and a narrative point of view to be written up. Another focus were the different layers of storying. As ethnographers, for example, we tend to pick stories from our fieldnotes, weave them into a larger story for the argument and at the same time try to craft a story about ourselves as smart and capable authors. We further talked about techniques of storying, including sequencing, interruption and suspense. We got increasingly puzzled when wondering what actually distinguishes a good novel from a good ethnography. And we talked about our difficulties in imagining and coordinating different audiences. What does it mean to be ‘honest’ in storying? How to end a story and achieve some form of closure? And whose stories are they anyway?

Interestingly, the stories told after the talk-walk had less to do with the intricacies of story-telling than with the thick crust of mud on our shoes. We had just passed Wolvercote when we were confronted with an ‘obligatory passage point’: a big and muddy puddle opened up in front of us and blocked our way. As you can see, some of us mastered this challenge with unexpected elegance.

Passage point

Chris mastering an obligatory passage point

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 17 December 2010, 2-4.30pm. More info here.