Representing Algorithmic Systems (full)

Representing Algorithmic Systems (full)

UKAI Projects · Local Disturbances - Shorts #29 - Representing Algorithmic Systems (pt. 1)
UKAI Projects · Local Disturbances - Shorts #30 - Representing Algorithmic Systems (pt. 2)


Reminder: Our first book, In Praise of Disorder, is available for purchase. I wrote the kind of book that I enjoy reading. I’m proud of it. Why have we become so anxious about uncertainty and contingency? How might we contribute to a culture that sees disorder as necessary and beautiful?

We’ve always been acutely aware of the visible and invisible mechanics that give shape to our experiences of the world. We’re not entirely sure how this came to be, but even as children we seemed to struggle with intangible authority and social narratives that we played no part in creating. At UKAI Projects, we experience and talk about the unwritten rules of collective living as a physical thing, and this is where our practice aims. The immediacy of collective narratives has also shaped the arc of our work

We each experience social and cultural control and expectations in our own way. Fernando Pessoa wrote passionately about the need to dismantle “social fictions”. Mikhail Bakhtin warned of the ossification of patterns of thought and behaviour that he referred to as the “stories of the grandfathers”. C. Thi Nguyen talks about “agential distance” and the rules and constraints for autonomous agents (us) that bring about certain outcomes desired by the authors of those rules and constraints. He points to landscape design, urban planning, and government.

Algorithmic systems promise to extend and expand our power to shape human experience. This seems to extend from three key trends:

  • Improved ability of technologies to shape the structure of our socioeconomic lives
  • Improved ability of social technologies to shape our inner lives
  • Elevation of efficiency and size as moral positions

What then becomes urgent is the need to make visible where, how, and when our patterns are being altered in service to the ends of others. Road signs, traffic lights, and speed limits are obvious and visible ways that our behaviour is modified in service to a broader goal of safe and efficient transportation.  Debates about speed, safety, and the rights of pedestrians are as old as the automobile. Norms are negotiated over time, and this is facilitated by the fact that we encounter transportation systems directly and physically.


What less obvious and less visible technological systems are being designed in service to our modern faith in scale? What are the implications of these changes?

The Whole Foods near our house has switched over to mostly automated cash registers. A staff member, arms crossed, stands by and watches as we try to figure out these new machines and are gradually trained by them. Those with already limited contact with other people have another pathway to human connection erased.

Toronto’s transit system struggles with delays and violence. It is rare that a staff member can be found should any trouble arise. Automated payment and entry removes the need for staff on hand to process payments or for staff to enforce fares. Improvements in trains further reduce the need for human beings. The subway system becomes a warm place for those with nowhere else to go and this too often leads to tragedy.

Those engineering these systems will look to the data that matters to them to assess the impact of these changes. Lower staffing costs, faster flow-through of shoppers, greater profit – whatever the institution assembling these algorithmic systems seeks is what shows up in the charts and tables they produce. Opponents can generate their own data to contest the efficacy of these systems. However, many of the impacts extend far beyond the boundaries of an institution’s purview and are notoriously hard to assess or quantify.

A Potential Approach

How do we represent these experiences, universal to any that happen to live around other people? Art has long served to make sense of the world and the changes happening around us. To some extent, it can still do that work, but the art world is increasingly being absorbed into the logics that give rise to algorithmic systems in the first place - how many audience members, how much ticket revenue, how many co-productions completed.

We are organized by the world in ways that are not always visible to us. We share our experiences through creative expression to draw attention to the medium through which we enact our social and cultural lives.

Cervantes wrote Don Quixote early in the 17th century. It is considered the first novel by many, and its innovation was a profound one. To that point, literature was dominated by lyricism and the epic. Lyricism was a projection of our inner feelings, and the epic was a projection of ideal forms. In both cases, the work existed outside of time and outside of the reality of our sensorial experience. There was no “when” to the Iliad other than “before”.

The adventures in Don Quixote were described rather than narrated. A new structure emerged to accommodate stories that were met on a plane transversal to our own. Novels bring worlds into being that we might inhabit, whether 1,000 years in the future or 1,000 years in the past or in a different realm entirely. We encounter consciousnesses in relation to each other and to the events that unfold, and we expect that these consciousnesses will act in accordance with their own inner coherence.

My supposition, then, is that if we want to truly inhabit sociotechnical systems we need to find ways to “novelize” them. Dystopian and utopian arguments are simple stories that extend out from pre-existing ideologies. They do little to animate a system or structure except to reveal the feelings of the author sitting outside of it. Their intention is not to make things available, but to change minds or to elaborate on a pre-existing set of beliefs.

I am thinking about novels as artistic objects distinct from efforts at rhetoric. When the Russian feudal system encountered efforts at industrialization it led to profound cultural and social upheaval. Dostoevsky responded to these changes by describing them and by filling worlds with characters reacting to events in ways that were consistent with their inner lives.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun and Never Let Me Go are recent examples of how novelized forms can serve to animate sociotechnical issues in non-didactic ways. Of course, Ishiguro, like Dostoevsky, can be occasionally heavy-handed in their treatment of the world around them, but their craft is committed to constructing worlds that live outside the moral positions of its author. Novels are a terrain of uncertain governance, and we occupy them and give them meaning in dialogue with the author, through the worlds they create.

What does this mean?

In part II we hope to outline a process for figuring out how AI and other systems driven by cognitive technologies might be novelized. Perhaps, instead of an IKEA set of instructions, algorithmic systems arrive in a box with a novel attached. I am skeptical that our current culture would acquiesce to reading and digesting a novel (or novels) before installing automated tellers but hopefully some of the practices and products of the novelist can inform how we go about representing algorithmic systems.

We recently received funding from the Canada Council for the Arts to undergo some research into this question. We are committed to developing approaches to present, prototype, visualize, and archive AI systems and interventions. My hope is that this can be a collective exploration across sectors and expertise. There is benefit when we can talk about things together and outside of worked-through ideological positions. In reading Never Let Me Go, I found myself wondering how I would respond to the world of Never Let Me Go and have explored with others their own responses. My relationship to artificial intelligence has been strongly shaped by Klara and the Sun. By novelizing a system, we are granted entry points into conversations about the world we have and the world that we are building.

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