Ted Striphas & the Algorithmization of Culture
Last week CBC Spark interviewed Ted Striphas, an associate professor in the Department of Communication & Culture at Indiana University, about algorithmic culture. The conversation that unfolded was so fascinating, insightful, and deeply relevant to our time that we wanted share it here.
Striphas begins the interview by defining algorithmic culture as the process of sorting places, ideas, and things into a hierarchy. It is something that we have always done, but traditionally this sorting process has been handled by actual humans. Striphas notes, with mixed curiosity and concern, that this sorting is increasingly being entrusted to formulas and computers, and that we are increasingly relying on the information they provide to make major life decisions.
We can most readily observe algorithms influencing culture in things like Google results, Facebook friend recommendations, and Netflix suggestions. These are only the most visible manifestations however, as algorithm-based decision making is becoming increasingly prevalent in stock-trading, the legal process, advertising targeting, museum and gallery curating, and more.
Where this system becomes problematic is when we fail to question whether the information they provide is the best information, or simply the most convenient. Striphas notes that, when we enter a given search term into Google, we assume the displayed results to be most relevant- but this is not necessarily the case. The results are determined through an engineer-programmed algorithm, which is highly exploitable. An entire industry has, in fact, been built around the process of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) which aims to increase prominence or bury negative results in online searches. In this way, search results present a distorted reality, in which the real world and online world do not necessarily reflect one another.
With regards to arts and culture specifically, the algorithmic age presents two primary challenges:
1) Absence of Debate: Films, plays, ballets, and works of art that were historically considered masterpieces or admitted to the ‘canon,’ only arrived at the position following considerable debate, discussion, and challenging between a tremendous number of disparate individuals. When one Googles “Best Shakespeare Plays” and the search engine responds with a list of “Top 10 Greatest Plays,” it is difficult to argue that Google is wrong (even when the resulting list absurdly excludes Lear).
2) Absence of Challenge: One of the great dangers of the internet age is our ability to foster bias by only consuming media that supports our opinion and worldview. This can be all the more dangerous when it comes to the arts, as one of culture’s chief purposes is to challenge our beliefs and perspectives (as an article in the Guardian reminded us just this week). When we are only recommended and exposed to art we already agree with, our ability to foster a greater appreciation and to grow from the experience is stymied.
To better appreciate the full scope of the topic, and to hear Striphas’ recommendations for how we can best adjust to living in an algorithmic age, listen to the uncut interview here.
Ted Striphas has also written extensively about Algorithmic Culture on his blog, The Late Age of Print.