Activist Algorithms

Algorithms are ubiquitous in our digital experience. Algorithms are mathematical formulas usually designed by engineers, computer scientists, programmers and hackers, among others. Some of the most “well-known” algorithms are designed and constantly improved by “data empires” (such as Google, Facebook, etc.) which keep them well guarded secrets since it is at the basis of their business model. As a case in point, Google has only released the first iteration of its algorithm known as page rank, and Facebook’s edge rank and face recognition algorithms are top secret.

Astrid Mager (2012) situates algorithms behind corporate search engines in the larger capitalist ideological framework. She argues that the New Spirit of Capitalism (Boltanski and Chiapello 2005) gets embedded into the design of search algorithms therefore aligning its socio, economic, legal and political values into the mathematical formula. The political philosophy behind corporate algorithms and other kinds of protocols seem to be unambiguously clear.

In the book Media Technologies (2014, 169), Tarleton Gillespie argues that in the past years algorithms can be characterized by “political valence” in the way in which they mitigate participation and create “calculated publics”. Users, however, are usually unaware of the power of algorithms in shaping what they see and what they are able to “find” through search engines on the Internet.

From this starting point and political stance behind the making of algorithms we can make the assumption that they are not neutral? Science and Technology Studies have long argued that technologies are not neutral (Feenberg 1999). If corporate algorithms follow a certain neo-liberal ideology, can we think of algorithms that aim at disrupting systems of oppression such as capitalism, racism and patriarchy? In other words, can we think about activist algorithms, and if so what would they looks like? Can activist algorithms foster collaboration, anti/post capitalism, anti-racist and/or feminist positions and inflections? Do we have examples of these? And where do they stand on freedom of expression and on challenging individualism? Who are the communities behind these activist algorithms and what are their main “goals” and vision?

In my quest to better understand activist algorithms, I would like to ask the following questions:


1. What is an activist algorithm for you ? And which algorithms can be best described as an activist one ?
a. What kind of community or environment it takes to create activist algorithms ?
b. To which extent an activist algorithm is linked to the creation of activist data bases, data centers, among others ?
c. To which extent an activist algorithm is about gradually banning corporate servers from their connections ?

Do share your thoughts about algorithms!