Let's begin with four recent stories:
|Story 1 |
On Tuesday, November 8, 2016, the election of Donald Trump was quite surprising: how could such a controversial figure reach the White House? The reasons, of course, are innumerous. But what if one of them was Facebook? After all, Trump supporters never stopped using this platform to spread out disputed contents. What if voters were brainwashed by “fake news” Facebook contributed to diffuse? What if this extensive interlinking participated in Trump’s advertisement and fundraising? However harsh this claim might be, it seriously harms the image of this Web application that would rather help to “connect people” than to build border walls. It seems then that monitoring needs to be increased, even though it may contradict some assumptions Mark Zuckerberg elevates as precepts. The main target is the “News Feed,” the central column of the application that displays stories posted by Facebook users. What about slightly modifying how News Feed automatically selects new stories in order to make it ignore “low quality posts”? This may help to restore Facebook’s image, at least a little bit. After several months of research and testing, a new algorithm is now operational that – based on frequencies of posts and URLs of links – identifies spam users and automatically deprioritize the links they share. According to Facebook’s vice-president, this new method of computation should significantly reduce the diffusion of “low quality content such as clickbait, sensationalism, and misinformation."
|Story 2 |
Mars is a distant location. But hundreds of millions of kilometers did not dishearten NASA from sending the robotic rover Curiosity to explore its surface. On May 6, 2012, the costly vehicle safely lands on Gale Crater. Quite a feat! Amazing high-resolution pictures are soon available on NASA’s website, showing the world the jagged surface of this cold and arid planet. Of course, Curiosity is far more than a remote-controlled car taking exotic pictures. It is a genuine laboratory on wheels with many high-tech instruments: two cameras for true-color and multispectral imaging, two pairs of black-and-white cameras for navigation, a robotic arm with an ultra-high-definition camera, a laser-induced spectrometer, solar panels, two lithium-ion batteries, and so on. Yet there is an obvious cost to this amazing remote-controlled laboratory: it needs to move its dry 900 kilograms. The sharp, rocky surface of Mars does not alleviate the constant efforts of Curiosity’s wheels, which irremediably wear down. Already in January 2014, the situation has become alarming: is there a way to extend the lifetime of Curiosity’s wheels? After several months of research and testing, a new driving algorithm becomes operational that uses real-time data from the navigation cameras to adjust Curiosity’s speed when it comes to sharp Martian pebbles. By reducing the load of Curiosity’s leading and middle wheels up to 20% and 11%, respectively, this new method of computation for navigation may be a serious boost for the mission.
|Story 3 |
Israeli secret services in the West Bank are used to dismantling organizations they define as “terrorists” by means of “preventive” actions and intimidation. But what about individuals who commit attacks on a whim? Just like several police departments in the United States, Israeli secret services are now supported by a type of security software whose algorithm generates profiles of potential attackers based on aggregated data posted on social media. Yet while several American civil courts are now seriously considering the potential bias of these new methods of computation, Israeli military justice as applied to suspected Palestinian “attackers” prevents them from having any sort of legal protection. Thanks to the ability of the West Bank military commander to stamp administrative detentions, these “dangerous profiles” can be sentenced to renewable six-month incarceration without any possibility of appeal. Many Palestinians targeted by this state-secret technology “have served long years without ever seeing a court.”
|Story 4 |
How can people be made to eat more Nutella? These last years have not been easy for the Italian brand of chocolate jam. When palm oil production threatened remote orangutans, only a small fraction of citizens was eager to criticize its use in Nutella’s recipe. But as soon as palm oil becomes suspected of speeding up the spread of cancer among European Nutella consumers, there starts to be a worrying drop in sales. For Nutella, something needs to be done to reconnect with the stomachs of its customers. What about a fresh new marketing campaign? In collaboration with advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather Italia, seven million uniquely designed Nutella jars are soon produced and sold in record time. At the heart of this successful marketing move is an algorithm that computes a carefully selected set of colors and figures in order to generate unique pop patterns.
What a mess! States of affairs, apparently, change. News Feeds of Facebook users were first subjected to spammers diffusing hoaxes and “fake news” that are presumed to have played a role in the election of Donald Trump. These News Feeds soon became, temporarily, monitored lists of stories worth being read. Similarly, Curiosity’s weight together with sharp Martian pebbles first seriously affected the robot’s wheels, thus compromising the initial duration of the mission. Yet a few changes in the locomotion system soon started to slow down this unexpected wear. In another case, Israeli secret services were at first powerless against attacks not prepared within dismantable cell organizations. Yet these services soon became able to identify suspects and put them in jail without any kind of legal procedure. Finally, Nutella was first an old-fashioned chocolate jam whose recipe included cancer-related palm oil. It then became, temporarily, a personalized pop product. For better or worse, collective configurations are rearranged, thus constituting surprising new states of affairs; relationships between humans and non-humans are reconstituted, thus temporarilly establishing new networks. The collective world – our world – is constantly reshaped in many ways.
That being said, we may wish to comprehend some of the dynamics of these messy rearrangements. After all, as we all have to co-exist on the same planet, getting a clearer view of what is going on could not hurt; documenting a tiny set of the innumerous relationships that constitute the world we live in may equip us with some kind of navigational instrument. Together, where do we go? What are we doing? What is going on? These are – I believe – important questions.
In order to address these questions, two approaches are generally used. Broadly speaking, the first approach consists in postulating the existence of aggregates capable of inducing states of affairs. Depending on academic traditions, such aggregates take different names: they are sometimes called “social classes,” “fields and habitus,” “cultural habits,” or “social structures,” among many other variations. These differently named yet a priori postulated aggregates are all pretenders to the definition of the social (or society), an influential yet evanescent matter that supposedly surrounds individuals and orientates their actions. The scientific study of this matter and the states of affairs it engenders is what I call the science of the social or, more succinctly, social science.
The second approach – the one I try to embrace – consists in considering the social not as an evanescent matter surrounding individuals but as the small difference produced when two entities come into contact and temporarily associate with each other. This approach postulates that every new connection between two actants – humans (Bob, the president, Mark Zuckerberg) or non-human entities (a wheel, a dream, some legal documents) – makes a small difference that can sometimes be accounted for. If we accept calling “social” the small difference produced when two actants temporally associate with each other, we may call “socio-logy” the activity that consists in producing texts (logos) about these associations (socius). Our initial four stories are small examples of such an activity: Facebook, Curiosity, Israeli secret services, and Nutella temporarily associate themselves with new entities, and the blending of these new connections contributes to the formation of new configurations summarized within a text. Had we added several rearrangements and accounted for their constitutive associations a little more thoroughly, we would have produced a genuine sociological work. On the contrary, had we invoked some hidden force in order to explain these reconfigurations; had we attributed the modifications of each state of affairs to some a priori postulated aggregate (e.g., individual rationality, society, culture), we would have produced a small work of social science. This distinction between socio-logy and social science will accompany us throughout this website. It is thus important to keep in mind that my work is – or, at least, is intended to be – sociological.
With these clarifications in mind, let us consider our four small socio-logical exercises. What do we see? We quickly notice that each of the four states of affairs is affected by an “algorithm” – for now, loosely defined as a computerized method of calculation – which, in its own way, contributes to modifying a network of relationships. In every rearrangement, one specific algorithm – well-supported by many other elements (researchers, data, tests, etc.) – participates in making Facebook less subject to the spread of hoaxes (Story 1), Curiosity’s wheels a bit more durable (Story 2), Palestinians radically more “jailable” (Story 3), and Nutella temporarily more salable (Story 4). Along with all the entities they are associated with, these methods of computation then seem to participate in changing power dynamics: Facebook, Curiosity’s wheels, Israeli security services, and Nutella become temporarily stronger than Trump-spamming supporters, sharp Martian pebbles, West Bank potential “terrorists,” and palm oil scandals, respectively.
Scholars of Science & Technology Studies (STS) – a subfield of sociology that aims at documenting the co-constitution of science, technology and the collective world – nowadays tend to study algorithms’ propensity to modify power dynamics. What do algorithms do? What do they produce? Where does their strength come from? These are questions my colleagues and I tentatively try to answer. Check out some of my propositions!