sensibilités algorithmiques
2019 17 05 seventh post

The Glitch or how to negotiate with algorithms

Axel Meunier, Donato Ricci, Dominique Cardon and Maxime Crépel

This is a preview of our article to be published in Techniques & Culture n°72

The participation of algorithms in everyday life is the focus of much debate polarized between :

  • The usefulness of technological innovations to automate certain cognitive tasks by guessing our individual personalities, tastes and desires
  • The normative effects of the invisible power of algorithms that interfere in democratic processes or escape state regulation.

These two poles summon the same imaginary of the almost magical efficiency of computation, an imaginary that is hardly contradicted by the reality of the user's everyday seamless encounters with algorithms. Indeed, unlike other systems, algorithms rarely break down entirely in a way that would enable social scientists to observe them as a network. In the algoglitch project, we nonetheless endeavoured to foreground some effects of algorithmic failures as transient micro-disturbances, vibrations, of the interaction with the user. We repurposed the term glitch to describe this fleeting moment when the algorithm produces a result that disturbs the user's common sense expectations and their assumptions about how it works. Defined in relation to the perception of the human user who experiences them, glitches are sometimes noticed and accounted for with an ironic, vehement or contemplative tone. In the article, we discuss glitches and whether they actually are failures, bugs, or something else.

We also wish to address two specificities of our method in relation to design. The first one is coming up with an alternative to the "problem solving" function of design that focuses the attention on anticipating the future. On the contrary, we are interested in slowing down the movement and focusing on the present to describe the political problems that concern us. The second specificity lies precisely in the definition of "us", whose intention is not only to represent the authors of this article, but also to bring together a public affected by computation. We started a collection of glitchs as expressions of algorithmic sensitivities, and then experimented with a process of collective curation, sharing and repair that accounts for the users' agency and not only their submission to the invisible and all-powerful hand of the calculations.

In Algoglitch, design acts as a practice able to activate a situated arrangement of humans and non-humans united around common problems. While the platforms are aimed at individual clients whose unique experience would be tailored to their needs, the aim here is to pay attention to the adjustment work done by users, to observe the gap between the world of human experience and the calculated world, to negotiate how we want to be calculated.

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