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A Note on Algorithmic Culture

Culture is a framework of human life and creativity; it provides a context that enables identification of human beings. This context is presently moulded by new technologies. Ways in which they shape human life and experience raise particular interest in discernible cultural transformations that are at present tightly interwoven with the new technologies wave. The discussion of algorithmic culture1 reflects such interest and contributes to understanding of new cultural transformations. The term algorithm comes from the art of calculating and basically denotes a procedure to be followed in order to calculate correctly.

This note is a review of the article on the Netflix Prize and the production of algorithmic culture2. The authors, Blake Hallinan and Ted Striphas discuss specific highly technologized algorithmic cultural production and the issuing term algorithmic culture. They focus on the Netflix Prize (2006-2009) to illustrate how algorithmic information processing affects the meaning of culture and cultural practice.

The Netflix Company rates movies and thus mediates people's choices of movies offered to be watched. Such process produces both 'delight and profit' by 'fusing technology and subscriber information in a complex alchemy of audiovisual matchmaking'3. A number of other companies (e.g., Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, etc.) have developed comparable recommendation systems which operate similarly (often on the edge of legal regulations). However, most of them avoid 'public conversation about how their algorithms make decisions'. With the intention to develop a movies' recommendation system capable of predicting more accurate movie ratings, Netflix launched a contest that drew more than 50000 participants from 186 countries, which actuated and intensified discussions on technological impacts affecting cultural production and understanding of culture.

What is, or could be, culture of present times? When 65 years ago A. L. Kroeber and C. Kluckhohn registered 164 definitions of culture4 it was impossible to predict whether this number of definitions is exhausted and how the emerging new cultural practices might influence understanding of the term or of the subject itself. No wonder that Raymond Williams (1983:87) thought that 'culture' is 'one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language'5. Having in mind that English is not the only language on the Planet, and that cultural practices and values are indeed very diverse, the difficulties linked to understanding and use of the word culture, encountered by speakers of other languages, living in other cultures, may be considerable.

In the Western scholarly tradition multiple meanings of culture have different registers which change as they remain open to further inputs created by evolving cultural practices. Such practices are at the moment deeply affected by the dynamic impacts of new technologies. Their rapid spread and wide use have opened new possibilities to both creators and consumers/users of cultural goods and values. Mediation of cultural values and goods is also technologized. Cultural creativity, production and consumption are presently permeated by computational processes and interrelated to create algorithmic culture.

According to Hallinan and Striphas, algorithmic culture demonstrates 'how new meanings and practices can insinuate themselves into long-established routines, transforming the latter in ways that may be just reaching popular awareness'. In the context of the Netflix Prize the authors discuss definitions of culture, regimes of value (the degree in which the technical challenge is harmonized with the interpretative one), the ways of life (describing the models of cultural identity and the emerging frameworks of identification including sex, age, race and other broad classifications as factors influencing the consumption of cultural goods) and analyze the possibilities of different algorithms to capture detail and nuances that influence user ratings. These elements enable elaboration of the algorithm able to orientate new cultural preferences and identities.

Algorithms used to be viewed as exogenous to human affairs, as some 'non-human' contents and values that move the anthropocentric conceptualization of culture towards the algorithmic one. Although all cultures have always been related to the natural phenomena and rationality (e.g., interrelation of numbers and mathematics within music; of plants and growth in conceptualization of development, etc.), new technological tools now offer a possibility to develop new algorithmic identities and shape cultural identity online. The repatriation of tools, numbers and non-human to a lifeworld incites and necessitates decomposition of some cultural values and 'profoundly ambivalent potentialities in the undetermined cultural identity formation'. These processes affect cultural objects, ideas and aesthetics, as well as the quickly changing role of the media. By affecting the size and specificity of audiences algorithms influence mass media which are orientated to abandon industrial modes of functioning and which ever more turn to the highly differentiated micro-audiences. Such developments support 'the addressivity' of culture, its faster mediatization and (re)specialization of the media communicative role.

Hallinan and Striphas find that the Netflix Prize has pointed in the direction of 'another universe of reference' that reflects 'algorithmic appeal in which objects, ideas and practices ... are judged independently, in part, of human beings'. The issue of a possible cultural turn from the anthropocentric conceptualization of culture towards algorithmic one is not further discussed in this article. It is however noted that the discussion of algorithmic culture is oriented toward the future, 'a future in which people and algorithms will continue to become ever more entangled in cultural production, both on and offline' (Gillespie, 2014: 183-184).6

The authors clearly declare that any analysis of algorithmic culture should be 'situated in the details of cultural production'. The challenges of cultural transformation lie therefore in present-day cultural practices and creativity, which attract a lot of interest and stimulate research of both technological and cultural aspects of the ongoing cultural transitions. Hallinan and Striphas also point out that the change of culture and cultural identities is a process that still has to be researched and enlightened. It still remains to be seen whether the culture that humanity may be entering now would be indeed a (post) algorithmic culture.

Nada Švob-Đokić, PhD
Culturelink Team / IRMO

Notes

1. The term was introduced by Alexander Galloway (2006) Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. See: Striphas, T. (2015) "Algorithmic Culture", European Journal of Cultural Studies, 2015, Vol.18(4-5), p. 395.

2. Hallinan, B.; Striphas, T. (2016) "Recommended for you: The Netflix Prize and the production of algorithmic culture", New Media and Society, January 2016 vol.18 no1 117-137. Published online before print June 23, 2014, doi: 10.1177/1461444814538646

3. All citations are from the online version of the article: nms.sagepub.com/content/18/1/117.full

4. Kroeber, A.L.; Kluckhohn, C. (1963/1952) Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions. New York: Vintage.

5. Williams, Raymond (1983) Keywords; A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

6. Gillespie, T. (2014), "The relevance of algorithms", In: Gillespie, T, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot, eds. Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 167-194.