I recently attended the 6th annual AEGS Conference at NC State (#AEGS15), an outstanding conference where local scholars ask and answer important questions about the state of the (digital) humanities. I was fortunate enough to be a part of a panel on identity and online communities with some fabulous young scholars from NC State and UNC-Charlotte. The title of my presentation was “On the Productive and Political Capacities of Algorithms: Citizen Action, Resistant Publics, and #JusticeForMikeBrown.” The abstract is below.
A key strength of the digital humanities is its interdisciplinary perspective. Those who work in the digital humanities have the benefit of using tools, theories, and concepts from fields as diverse as STEM and communication studies, information and library sciences and history, rhetoric and linguistics. The present working paper is one such example of borrowing both theoretical concepts and critical objects of study from information and mathematical sciences and applying them to the fields of rhetoric and media studies.
This paper suggests that algorithms (or at least certain algorithmic logics) are not innocent or inert technical artifacts that index and order data. Rather, this essay takes very seriously Gillespie’s assertion that “algorithms not only help us find information, they also provide a means to know what there is to know, and how to know it, to participate in social and political discourse, and to familiarize ourselves with the publics in which we participate” (Gillespie, 2014, p .167.) Algorithms demonstrate productive and political capacities that shape users’ civic participation in both the digital sphere and “in real life” (IRL).
Resisting the idea that technology is necessarily separate from socio-political reality, this essay instead suggests that scholars understand algorithms as an ideologically-charged part of a “heterogeneous assemblage” (Lury et al, 2012, p. 5) of technological infrastructures, processes, and human action which may influence civic participation and resistance both on and offline. Using the events in Ferguson, Missouri as a case study, I argue that algorithmic logics are necessarily partial, partisan and their effects are often obfuscated in users’ everyday experience on social media websites. In the case of Mike Brown’s death, however, digital humanities scholars find an opportunity to bring to light the powerful capacities of algorithms and algorithmic logic as they shape various participative and resistant publics.