vol. 26 no. 2, June, 2021

Book Reviews

Hristova, Stefka, Hong, Soonkwan and Slack, Jennifer Daryl (eds.) Algorithmic culture: How big data and artificial intelligence are transforming everyday life. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021. 211 p. ISBN 978-1-7936-3573-0. £77.00.

Algorithms have recently become an enigmatic object of research and we can find a number of scholarly and popular books exploring the nature of algorithms and the consequences of their networked omnipresence on a variety of spheres of human life. A couple of these examples could be If... then: algorithmic power and politics (Bucher, 2018) or The algorithmic leader (Walsh, 2019). The authors of this book are exploring the impact of new digital media powered by machine learning on some aspects of our everyday life. Of course, 'Nobody will embrace the unembraceable' as Kozma Prutkov (1853-1854) (a fictional Russian author) has wisely noted in his Fruits of reflection, but the authors have covered a wide range of contexts, such as consumption, mourning, search for family history, photography and comtemporary art in addition to more philosophical and theoretical issues related to the role of algorithms and other digital technologies in modern lives.

The book consists of nine chapters written by nine authors. They share the concept of algorithmic culture rather than just discuss algorithms as the tools driving modern computer and information technology. In addition, they agree that the dominance of this new technology based on artificial intelligence and big data is pervading everyday human communication and turns into new tools of power. As a consequence we face new ways of dominance and reproduction of inequality. These issues become even more serious because of an apparent objectivity of technological tools that in reality operate on biases that are usually invisible, though in some cases their manifestation becomes obvious. The biases are integrated into the everyday communication, information and decision making technologies not only through algorithms, but also through available sets and masses of data, on which the algorithms are trained in machine learning. Thus, the title of the book Algorithmic culture is justified on the basis of the values inbuilt in technology from the start, which then shape human ways to communicate and build relationships with each other or engage in all kinds of everyday activities using digital tools.

The introduction lays the ground for further discussion by defining the algorithm, outlining its relationship to human agency, and presenting the view of trasformation of digital technology into algorithmic culture through five principles outlined by Manovich (2001). The authors of the first chapter argue the necessity of the concept algorithmic culture further highlighting the biases of seelction and transformation, but especially the power and control over human actions that result in deskilling of professionals, lead to major errors in decision making (as demonstrated by crashes of aircrafts in 2018 and 2019), and create stereotypes influencing our everyday behaviour.

The second chapter on fetishization of algorithms and digital technologies takes this discussion further into the realm of trust and belief in patterns promoted by these technologies universally. It is especially noticeable in the consumption markets through reduced negotiation power of consumers. The provision of shortlists and ads imprints false identities on consumers directed by the marketeer's perspective. Human agency does not disappear, but is more and more governed by the technology that was not actually granted this authority. The third chapter challenges the cultural biases related to the creation of algorithms, by exposing the partriarchal monoculture of the industry and the myth of meritocracy of the big corporations. A possible solution to the exposed problems could be accepting the cultural biases of technologies and striving to pluralism of cultural approaches in their production.

Chapter four continues the discussion on a much higher theoretical and philosophical level employing the approaches of different thinkers, but especially Gilles Châtelet. It discusses the issue of a chaos produced by the freedom of any kind, be it freedom of consumption or freedom of thought in market economy. The algorithm is envisioned as a means of controlling this chaos, as a promise of computed equilibrium and self-organisation, and at the same time as an ultimate threat to people. The chapter is navigating a reader through a number of seemingly known concepts throwing a new light on them. Chapter five explores the transition from the utopia of freedom of and with information of an old hacker culture into the 'hack of social' and networks of social control under the surveillance capitalist system. As hacking in itself becomes captured by surveillance capitalism for making profit from social behaviour and has served the spread of ubiquitous computing, the combat of the said surveillance capitalism cannot be left to partial measures, such as cryptography (to hide from surveillance), open source software (to counteract commercialisation of everything), and whistleblowing (to enhance public awareness). These still can be helpful, but the major effort needs to be taken by societies at large.

In the chapter six, we read about quite an unexpected topic and get acquiainted with the work of filter bubles created by algorithm in online mourning. The author explores how it alienates the mourner as a person by turning life and death into an online show. Chapter seven proceeds to look into the unlikely corners of algorithmic influences, in this case, into the algorithmization of genetic profiles that in turn affect identities and cultures. It shows how collections of big data, manipulations on them and training of algorithms on these biased pools of data, hides identities and breaks down humanity into measurable data only to reasamble it into pre-defined groups. 'Identity cannot be found in a box or by spitting in a tube,' (p.135) as we are coming from stories and histories passed through generaltions. The most astonishing chapter was the eighth one as it was dealing with biases built into the input and output systems of digital cameras. I admit that I have not grasped the complexities of the technological descriptions, but was intrigued by the working of colour algorithms and the related limitations in depicting human bodies of different colours.

The least interesting to me was the final ninth chapter on contemporary digital art, which happens to be the longest one in the book. It provides a good overview of the developing relationship between artists and their technological tools, but as I have read recently several books on the subject, I did not find anything new for me in it. However, I would recommendt it to many others not acquainted with the topic as a concise and thoughtful exploration of what happens to modern art and academic writing in the algorithmic culture.

What I missed in this book is a concluding part summarizing the whole of the provided content. The introductory part was preparing a reader for further discoveries, but the overall reflection of the findings of the authors would be welcome. The critical approach to the subject was far from the doomsaying for the modern society. All chapters have explored the consequences of digital and algorithmic technologies with an aim of understanding the problems that they cause. Though the book does not offer ready made receipes for altering the situation, the understanding of complex and varied consequencies allows us all, including powerful corporations assess them and take contra measures, even as small as seeking personal life balance and showing resistance to the digital markets.

I have not said anything about the authors, except that there were nine of them, including the editors of the whole book. Most of them are based in American and Canadian universities (except one from the Institute of Technology in Delhi) and occupy different positions from the distinguished professor to the PhD candidate at the time of publishing of the book. Inevitably they represent the American perspective on algorithmic culture. In this case, it makes sense as most of the digital technologies that are used throughout the world are produced and first experienced in American corporations. The book is clearly profiled for academic community throughout the world and suggest fruitful approaches to exploration of human behaviour in digital world and digital technologies in human lives.


Elena Maceviciute

University of Borås
April, 2021

How to cite this review

Maceviciute, E. (2021). Review of: Hristova, Stefka, Hong, Soonkwan & Slack, Jennifer Daryl (eds.) Algorithmic culture: how big data and artificial intelligence are transforming everyday life. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021. Information Research, 26(2), review no. R716 [Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs716.html]

Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.