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Culture Digitally the Podcast Episode 3: Conversations on Algorithms and Cultural Production – Culture Digitally

I’m a little annoyed with myself that I’ve lost track of my path to finding ‘Culture Digitally’. It first appears in my work computer’s Chrome history on 24 March (but not this link, it was to The Relevance of Algorithms). Nothing was posted to the Lifestream on that day.. and reference to Gillespie’s work on algorithms came at least two weeks earlier. I like being able to picture my trails through the internet – little strings connecting and tying together some wanderings, starting new trails for others – but I’m lost on this one. It seems remarkably remiss in retrospect, as I really enjoyed the podcast and it’s likely that the source I got the link from (though it was probably to a different page in Culture Digitally) has links to other things I might like. This could be becoming an obsession though – and perhaps the volume of information has just exceeded my mental capacity – so I shall let it lie for now.

Right – the podcast. It is the type of transmission that causes several pages of sprawling notes, dotted with food if one happens to be cooking dinner, and multiple moments of vocalised agreement despite no chance the ‘author’ might engage. 2012, though, which means I’m only recently engaging in serious thought about topics Tarleton Gillespie was articulating with great finesse a good 5 years ago. Not to inflate my own insightfulness, how was I not concerned about the influence of algorithms 5 years ago? How is it that concern is not more widely felt today? I’ve digressed: the podcast.

The ‘conversation’ features Ted Striphas and Tarleton Gillespie, interviewed by Hector Postigo. Key things which came out of the discussion for me were:

  1. the role of the algorithm in knowledge generation
  2. the role of the algorithm in the creation of publics
  3. the cultural life of the algorithm
  4. materiality of the algorithm
  5. ethics of the algorithm

In terms of 1, in the recording Gillespie noted how dependent we are on algorithms for ‘knowing general things’, such as those ideas which are trending, and how this informs our understanding of the publics we exist in (2). Yet, this reliance is afforded despite algorithms being ‘malleable’ (4): how it decides what is relevant is based on the operator’s business interests, and can be changed to accommodate these, therefore casting doubt on the supposed legitimacy of the ‘knowledge’ produced. This leads into ‘the culture life of the algorithm’: what we expect it to do, what it does, and what its role is in business (3).

With such obvious conflicts of interest, concern about the ethics of algorithms (5) rise to the fore. Gillespie makes a really interesting comparison with journalism, and the ethics of journalism, which he separates (based on -reference given in recording) the promise of journalistic objectivity and journalistic practices. To the former Gillespie links the view of the algorithm as cold and objective. Of the latter – which he notes are messy in both fields – Gillespie asks, “What are the practices beneath the algorithm?” and “Where is the ombudsman of algorithms?” If we have no central authority, to which the culture of Silicon Valley is resistant, how can there be assurances that the tech companies employing algorithms are committed to their end users? Why would there be? And what are the consequence of the reification of informationalised worlds? What new dispositions are created? What new habits?

Very thought provoking questions. This ought to be more widely thought about now.


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x’ = sin(a * y) – cos(b * x) y’ = sin(c * x) – cos(d * y)
Over the last week I’ve come across quite a few examples of algorithmic art, and I’m struck by the beauty of much of what I’ve seen. It somehow seems at odds with the cold (impartial+neutral), scientific image of algorithms which is frequently articulated. Gillespie (2012) refers to these articulations as the ‘discursive work’ of the algorithm – could these alternative articulations, which demonstrate the selective programming, and manipulation of algorithms to an artistic end, help to create a more balanced view of algorithms? Or, at least challenge a singular view?

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Description: MOOC 4.0: The Next Revolution in Learning
By Renha
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Huffington Post article by Otto Scharmer (MIT lecturer) on the pilot of a new type of MOOC (Massive Open Online Course): MOOC 4.0. He describes the evolution of MOOCs:

MOOC 1.0 – One-to-Many: Professor lecturing to a global audience
MOOC 2.0 – One-to-One: Lecture plus individual or small-group exercises
MOOC 3.0 – Many-to-Many: Massive decentralized peer-to-peer teaching.
MOOC 4.0 – Many-to-One: Deep listening among learners as a vehicle for sensing one’s highest future possibility through the eyes of others.

I think the MOOC I am participating in is still MOOC 1.0…

The pilot that Scharmer refers to has some fairly impressive statistics:

  • Eighty-eight percent of the respondents said in an exit survey that the course was either “eye-opening” (52%) or “life-changing” (36%).

So, what makes it different?

  • Formation of social fields is facilitated, linked to location hubs and ‘clinic circles’;
  • It includes 75-minute synchronous sessions (global) focused on mindfulness;
  • There is a focus on empathetic listening;
  • It intentionally sets out to connect students.

Such a striking difference to my own MOOC experience.

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We had 2012 as the year of the MOOC, 2014 was probably the year of the MOOC maturation, and I’m calling it for 2016, the year that university Vice Chancellors and Principals start looking and…

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Martin Weller’s (Ed Techie) provides an interesting critique of the MOOC business model. Links back to Lister et al.’s (2009) point about viability being tied to economic sustainability.

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Description: Being a teenager in 2015 is very different than it was in 1995. While most teenagers spent their free time watching a little TV in the 90s, there were far fewer screens to put in front of their faces. A social network was the group of friends you hung out with at school. Now, things have…
By Renha
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Technology as a cultural construct: the influence on culture is clear.

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Description: There is a lot to do before your kid’s school year gets started. Hopefully, having a talk about cyberbullying will be on your to-do list. According to a recent study by internet…
By Renha
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I went to Pinterest seeking different media to ‘feed’ the lifestream. In this way, the assignment changes how I would normally ‘act’: it has socio-material agency over me!

With another tragic loss of life this week (14-year-old Megan Evans, in the UK) prompted by cyberbullying, we receive another reminder of how ‘enmeshed’ online and offline lives are.

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Description: CYBERCULTURE [noun] the culture that has emerged, or is emerging, from the use of computer networks for communication, entertainment and business. It is also the study of various social phenomena associated with the internet and other new forms of network communication, such as online communities, online multi-player gaming, social gaming, social media and texting.
By Renha
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While perhaps more suited to cyberculture than ‘community cultures’, this image stood out to me as I had been reflecting on embodiment/disembodiment, and popular narratives which deny the situatedness of online participants. Lister, et. al (2009, p. 217) note:

critical thinking about ‘cyberspace’ should begin with the assumption that it is no more separate from the material world than any other kind of mediated experience and indeed precisely because of its ubiquity may in fact be more seamlessly and intimately stitched into everyday life.

and later (on p. 217), commenting on real relationships which start online:

our engagements with CMC are every bit as embodied and embedded in social reality as our engagement with any other media. The problematic dichotomy only arises when identity and social reality are assumed to be entirely material as opposed to discursive, and when ‘cyberspace’ is assumed to be entirely discursive rather than material.

To connect this with community, and dispersed online community in particular, I need to do a bit more ‘unpacking’. Can one have discourse without materiality, or materiality without discourse? What I mean is, the material world only exists through discourse, in that it is re-made through – or shaped by- the discourse of whomever ‘witnesses’ it (through their cultural lens). Similarly, discourse has to be enacted, or materialised, in order to exist, and presumably, it can’t ‘be’ without something to ‘be’ about. In this, discourse and materiality are ‘co-dependent’, or ‘co-constituent’ (forgive the rambling – this is new thinking for me).

The social and cultural forces I’ve examined here often emerge into stable patterns within a group. It is these stable patterns of social meanings, manifested through a group’s ongoing discourse that enable participants to imagine themselves part of a community.
(Baym 1998, cited in Lister, et al., 2009, p. 215)

Is it fair to construe this as people’s ability to see themselves in a community being dependent on them having a similar discourse about the material? That regardless of their material experience, they need to be open to each other’s discourse of that experience/each other’s experience? I’m tripping myself up, though, in this ontological rabbit warren: this dialogue supposes discourse and materiality are separate. Back to the thinking step..


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Description: Christine Hine recommends that ethnographers focus on the embedded, embodied and everyday Internet. Pic by dannymol on Flickr, CC BY 3.0
By Renha
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In Ethnography for the Internet embedded, embodied and everyday (2015) Christine Hine reflects (pp. 32-33):

Three particular aspects of the contemporary Internet experience have repeatedly struck me as especially challenging to the development of ethnographic strategies. For development of an ethnographic strategy for the Internet, it has seemed particularly significant that it is embedded in various contextualizing frameworks, institutions, and devices, that the experience of using it is embodied and hence highly personal and that it is everyday , often treated as an unremarkable and mundane infrastructure rather than something that people talk about in itself unless something significant goes wrong. These three “Es”—for shorthand purposes, the E3 Internet— provided a backdrop for thinking about why it is difficult to apply ethnographic principles to the contemporary Internet, and how we might do so successfully.


 Hines brings to my attention that a virtual ethnographer has the choice of adopting an embedded, embodied and everyday (E3) perspective or a cyberspatial perspective, wherein the online space is viewed as more self-contained. For the purpose of my upcoming mini-virtual ethnography, a cyberspatial approach seems most apt, in part due to the scale – I also need to narrow my research question so that it fits within this perspective.

Hines, C. (2015). Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday. Bloomsbury Publishing [e-book]. Retrieved from