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This would include the capacity of the algorithm to create, maintain or cement norms and notions of abnormality see Crandall, Crandall, J. The geospatialization of calculative operations: Tracking, sensing and megacities. Here, we might wonder how algorithms shape what is encountered, or how algorithms prioritise and make visible. The power of algorithms here is in their ability to make choices, to classify, to sort, to order and to rank. That is, to decide what matters and to decide what should be most visible.

Algorithmic ideology: How capitalist society shapes search engines. Kitchin proposes that we expose how algorithms are constructed, how they work, and the performative part they then play in the world. His piece provides six methodological approaches for exploring this and for overcoming the difficulty of appreciating the performative role of algorithms in ordering processes.

The filter bubble: What the internet is hiding from You. London : Viking. This line or argument suggests that algorithmic sorting processes are likely to limit cultural experiences and social connections. This concerns the way that algorithms might narrow down or close off external influences, leaving people continually exposed to the same people, experiences, news, culture and so on. When thinking of how algorithms classify and order, we must, it is suggested, think of the way that algorithms repeat patterns and thus close down interactions to those that fit existing patterns.

They use a focus on the sorting and ordering dynamics of algorithms to open up questions about the difficulties of thinking of algorithms as holding some sort of power. That is to say that power is realised in the outcomes of algorithmic processes. Their key point is that we need to see algorithms as being deeply relational and being a product of a set of associations.

So, to understand the sorting power of algorithms, for instance, we need to understand the associations, dependencies and relations that facilitate those algorithmic processes and their outcomes — rather than seeing the algorithm as carrying social power. All of this is by no means a fully populated list of all of the ways that algorithms might be seen to have some sort of social power for more details, see the various papers in this collection or the overview provided by Kitchin in this issue.

Rather, this is a cursory list of just a few of the most prominent issues as the functionality and performance of algorithms are considered alongside their social roles, implications and consequences. These points link directly and indirectly to a number of themes that emerge from this special issue. But the articles gathered in this volume are bursting with ideas and possibilities that stretch far beyond the cursory outline that I have provided.

I have only really provided a whistle-stop tour of these far-reaching issues here.


The previous section dealt with the issues that might be associated with an analysis of the power of the algorithms themselves. Before concluding, and to open up some further possibilities, this section focuses more directly upon the power of the notion of the algorithm. We need to look beyond the algorithms themselves to explore how the concept of the algorithm is also an important feature of their potential power. This is to suggest that we look at the way that notions of the algorithm are evoked as a part of broader rationalities and ways of seeing the world.

The questions here would revolve around how the algorithm is envisioned to promote certain values and forms of calculative objectivity.

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We can begin by linking this back to the previous section to argue that one way in which the power of algorithms might be explored is in relation to the production of truth. For Foucault, in the mids at least, the production of truth was placed centrally in understandings of the operation of power see Foucault, Foucault, M. London : Penguin.

Foucault Foucault, M. In his lecture series, Society must be defended , he connects this interest in truth with his earlier interest in the connections between power and knowledge. In a lecture from the 14 January , Foucault Foucault, M. Power cannot be exercised unless a certain economy of discourses of truth functions in, on the basis of, and thanks to, that power. For instance, Foucault Foucault, M. Politics and the study of discourse.

Burchell , C. Miller Eds. It is a question of the analysis of the discourses in the dimension of their exteriority. In a tentative mode, I would like to suggest that the term or notion of the algorithm should also be considered when attempting to understand the social power of algorithms. In some ways this power can potentially be detached from its technical and material form whilst still capturing something of the exteriority. As such, we would need to understand algorithms within their discursive practices and framings.

The notion of the algorithm is evoked to influence and convince, to suggest things and to envision a certain approach, governmentality and way of ordering. Plus, the term is also part of wider rationalities and ways of thinking. Together then, this requires us to explore and illustrate the power of this term whilst also potentially using it as a focal point for opening up or revealing these wider rationalities. The notion of the algorithm is part of a wider vocabulary, a vocabulary that we might see deployed to promote a certain rationality, a rationality based upon the virtues of calculation, competition, efficiency, objectivity and the need to be strategic.

As such, the notion of the algorithm can be powerful in shaping decisions, influencing behaviour and ushering in certain approaches and ideals. The notion of the algorithm is part of the social power we should be exploring. The term algorithm carries something of this authority.

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Algorithms are, largely, trusted for their precision and objectivity. A certain rationality may well then be built into this perception of the algorithm. The discourse surrounding the algorithm might well reveal something of the wider political dynamics of which they are a part. With this in mind, we might open up this dimension of the social power of algorithms. This would require us to reveal the life of the concept and how it circulates. It would require us to reveal the powers that are attached to or associated with the algorithm; these are promises and ideals that are then projected onto the code itself.

The aim would be to reveal the type of trust placed in systems that are labelled algorithmic i. And, finally, to reveal the way that algorithmic visions are then responsible for the expansion and integration of algorithmic systems.

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The way that those systems are spoken about is part of how they are incorporated into social and organisational structures and a part of how their implicit logic spreads. Notions of the algorithm might, for instance, to link this to the work of Cetina Cetina, K. Primitive classification and postmodernity: Towards a sociological notion of fiction. We have then a two-pronged means for approaching the social power of algorithms emerging from this.

In this regard, Foucault Foucault, M. That is, the delicate mechanisms of power cannot function unless knowledge, or rather knowledge apparatuses, are formed, organized, and put into circulation. There is obviously a good deal more to be said here; for the moment, I would like to simply suggest that the algorithm exists not just in code but it also exists in the social consciousness as a concept or term that is frequently used to stand for something something that is not necessarily that code itself.

To understand the social power of algorithms is to understand the power of algorithms as code whilst also attempting to understand how notions of the algorithm move out into the world, how they are framed by the discourse and what they are said to be able to achieve. Part of that institutionalising of the search for truth is based upon the notions of these systems and their capacities along with the capillaries of these apparatuses and how discursive framings of their power are evoked to usher them in.

As has been argued before see Graham, Graham, S.

the purpose and power of identity exploring the realities and possibilities of our being Manual

Introduction: From dreams of transcendence to the remediation of urban life. Graham Ed. This will require us to understand the technicalities of the systems as well as their social ordering potentials. We will need to understand the code, but we will also need to examine the work that is done by those modelling and coding these various types of algorithms. This would need to be accompanied by studies of how those algorithms play out in practice, watching how algorithms mesh into organisations, routines, decision-making and so on.

These would require us to analyse the materiality of the algorithms and the systems of which they are a part, to understand the work of coders, to see modelling processes in action, to understand how the algorithms then become part of everyday practices, to see the decisions made and to then see how people respond to those algorithmic processes.

As I have outlined in this introduction, some of this work is well under way. I would like to suggest that we also develop an interest in algorithms that explores the discourse surrounding algorithmic processes. This would be to examine the way that algorithms are a part of broader rationalities, broader programmes of social change and development.

This is to think about the notion of an algorithm as also being a part of power dynamics. This, I have suggested, can be thought of in terms of the two ways in which algorithmic power works by producing truths — both as outcomes or outputs of systems and as part of the discursive reinforcement of particular norms, approaches and modes of reasoning.


As well as understanding the integration of algorithms, we need to understand the way that this term is incorporated into organisational, institutional and everyday understandings. The discourse surrounding algorithms may then provide a focal point for analysing broader political rationalities and modes of governance. In this stream of work, the interest might not be in understanding the social powers of the technical systems, but in understanding how the notion of the algorithm itself has a kind of social power.

The algorithm is now a cultural presence, perhaps even an iconic cultural presence, not just because of what they can do but also because of what the notion of the algorithm is used to project. Sometimes, you do really have to seek help. There is a difference between having a down day and something altering your brain chemistry.

I am not opposed to anyone attempting to find their purpose.