Article Highlight | 11-Jul-2023

Osiris 38 assesses the craft/code binary in study of algorithmic culture

University of Chicago Press Journals

We live in an “algorithmic culture,” wherein algorithms intersect with and shape nearly every sphere of modern life. Many of us are well aware of this fact thanks to the close attention paid to the issue by academics and popular journalists in recent years, many of whom have sounded the alarm about the associated social impacts and called for measures to protect against emerging artificial intelligence (AI) systems.

While such writing has broadly been well informed, there is a pressing need to grapple with the reality of algorithmic culture historically, write James Evans and Adrian Johns. In the newest volume of Osiris, entitled Beyond Craft and Code: Human and Algorithmic Cultures, Past and Present, volume editors Evans and Johns present a collection of works that set forth the questions algorithms pose for historians of science, exploring what the history of science looks like in an algorithmic age. 

In their introduction to the volume, Evans and Johns make note of the common framing of algorithmic culture as a binary between two modes of reasoning: “craft,” a culture of human judgements, and “code,” one marked by mechanistic and inflexible logics. While this binary has some utility, Evans and Johns argue it is no longer adequate and itself is a product of historical processes, reflecting trends and traditions in the social history of science that need revision.

The essays included in Osiris 38 address new approaches beyond the craft-code binary across heterogenous definitions of “algorithm.” The volume is structured around five themes: unpacking the history of the craft-code distinction, examining the rules of algorithms, exploring what happens when algorithms interact with the outside world, investigating how assemblages of algorithms and humans behave, and surveying how these processes are underwritten by broad political and cultural currents. Together, these themes and the scholarship within the volume form a “coherent programmatic statement” for the history of science as a field. The compendium also offers suggestions for future initiatives, including that historians of science view their subjects of study not solely as algorithms but more as assemblages of humans, machines, institutions, and beyond.

The volume editors argue that historians can no longer view algorithms as either exotic or singular subjects of study. “As they have occupied center stage in our culture, so our historicizations of them take on a more critical edge, as we can insist that they are complex, potent, multivalent, and flawed entities,” they write. “In calling for a historiography of algorithms that is sophisticated enough to cope with the constitution of data, the making of machine learning systems, and the deployment, remediation, and consequences of both in all their contexts …  we are not only attending to urgent social questions. We are also acknowledging the inescapable and urgent need of our own profession if it is to flourish in an algorithmic future.”

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