The underlying experiences of algorithmic culture
In 2021 and 2022, UKAI was involved with Goethe-Institut Toronto and our research lead served as program lead of their algorithmic culture programming. The idea was to support creative and artistic encounters with artificial intelligence.
We launched our program on Algorithmic Cultures with networking and development workshops and the production of artist ‘zines as a local and idiosyncratic process that engages, educates, and organizes our friends, family, and community. Spring 2021 also saw the launch of “The Computer is Your Redacted,” a podcast documenting a group of artists, data scientists, and ethicists navigating a darkly humorous game world ruled by an erratic tyrant where no one is quite sure of the rules.
As might be clear, we consistently lean toward laughter and the weird rather than the didactic or the purely conceptual.
We enjoyed working with many groundbreaking international artists and partners to explore how the challenges of AI are tangled up with ideas of the physical intimacy, land stewardship, and migratory experiences.
We believe the possibility of shaping AI that makes sense for life in Germany or in Canada and beyond, in Berlin or in Iqaluit, rests in reconnecting to lives, cultures, and environments, and proposing directions for AI that reflect the experiences of being human.
Today’s post unpacks the broader themes of the work and hopefully explains the choices made in putting the program together.
The Algorithmic Culture work with Goethe Institut Toronto came out of a belief that too much AI ideology sees human lives, landscapes, and culture as problems to be solved through the analysis of data and automated decision making. Technologies are not being developed to support a collective inhabitation of a shared world but rather a locally optimized world that facilitates prediction and control. We explored these ideas through three ways that we ‘inhabit’ our world - through our bodies, through the landscape around us, and through our cultures.
The body is central to understanding our relationships with others and to the broader socio-technical systems of which we are a part. Algorithmic culture is having a profound impact on how we perceive our bodies, how we think with our bodies, and how our bodies are shaped. Hubert Dreyfus’s ground-breaking work argues that the body is fundamental to the possibility of intelligent life. Dreyfus rejected a formalist vision of a purely algorithmic, disembodied mind.
Facial monitoring systems see Asian faces as having closed eyes when they are wide open. Automated vehicles have had difficulties identifying Black faces. COVID-19 asked us to understand our cognition as disembodied. Carol Gilligan argues that ethical relationships are between bodies. How might the body become a site of inquiry into AI and its impacts?
The lived body is a subject and intimacy relies on our perceiving one another as embodied subjects. Intimacy, however, is inefficient and scales poorly. Algorithmic culture too often selects against intimacy in the decisions it makes. How might AI be explored through the lens of intimacy? How might intimate practices complicate our experiences of AI and the narratives we hold?
Just as we inhabit our physical bodies, we inhabit landscapes and live within and from them. We have seen the impact of failing to acknowledge our entanglement with natural systems. From stone tablets to silicon chips, intelligent machines are not further away from the land than an engraved piece of stone. To varying degrees, we are organized by our landscapes, and how might land inform the development and responses to AI? How might we change the focus of surveillance from monitoring and control to understanding the relationships among people and environments? How might traditional knowledge and stewardship underpin ethical AI?
According to legal scholar and member of the Chippewa of the Nawash First Nation John Borrows, in oral and visual cultures, law flows from the people and from the natural world and is reflected in the artistic and physical world. To imagine ourselves as disentangled from our landscapes creates the conditions for the evacuation of these spaces. How might an ethic of stewardship, centred in natural environments, suggest developmental pathways for AI and responses to its excesses?
Diaspora is a site of inter-corporeality, the space that exists among our bodies, described by our histories, beliefs, and approaches to meaning making. Each of us is situated in a historical, ecological, and social setting. Intersectionality complicates the study of bias in algorithms, and our systems are organized around categorical/hierarchical assumptions (legal and data). The current state requires unequal outcomes be 'attributed' or they are structurally invalidated.
Many are displaced from their physical or cultural origins, whether due to migration or displacement, real or digital. So, whose ethics are we talking about when we talk about AI ethics? Sabelo Mhlambi is exploring the ethical implications of technology using sub-Saharan ontologies and epistemologies. We understood diaspora as a critical site for proposing alternative socio-technical imaginaries that avoid Euro-Christian focus on 'objectivity'.
Algorithmic culture encourages the feeling that strangers are not real people with real agency. AI systems are frequently deployed at borders. Migration demands an accommodation to a novel context and a reweaving of habits and behaviours into a new fabric. Migration also complicates the ontological and epistemological roots of social action. How might various forms of migration and displacement inform algorithmic culture? How might we inhabit the Other to see ourselves and our interactions with AI systems and then return to ourselves with the gifts of that process? How might we produce a surplus of seeing, and thereby be perceived from contexts and points of view to which we don’t have access?
We can invite others into dialogue about these issues without requiring the adoption of Western ontological frames. When technical or scientific propositions have passed themselves off as the “whole” of the world, we have experienced catastrophic consequences for the world beyond technology. Climate change, alienation from landscapes and bodies, ecological destruction, and social Darwinism all extend from scientific theories dominating new aspects of human activity.
Theories – scientific or ethical – invite abstraction, and there is a need to reconnect concepts to underlying events. The ‘ideas’ we hold about AI need to be tested and refined through direct experience. Approaches centred in ethics, for example, lead to generalizable principles. These principles can become a basis for law or public opinion and may do so without regard for the underlying events performed by actual, embodied subjects.
Through this programming, we brought together multiple voices to generate works that embrace a complex dialogic around AI. Rather than finding the “right path”, we hoped to bring multiple conceptions of algorithmic bodies, lands and diaspora to bear on a living and multi-epistemic stance toward algorithmic culture and to share the results.
We can choose to see human (or technological) activity as being 'law-governed'. But choosing to see the world in a particular way doesn’t make it true. A return to the body - as well as to social acculturation, to land, to movement - as a site of action around artificial intelligence can be both critical and hopeful.
We are also looking for others exploring related questions so leave a comment or please reach out as we continue this exciting and humbling journey!