Informatics Seminar Series
Winter Quarter 2023

Friday, February 10, 2023

“Seeing Like an Algorithmic Error: What are Algorithmic Mistakes, Why Do They Matter, How Might They Be Public Problems?”

Mike Ananny
Associate Professor of Communication and Journalism, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

As digital devices, massive datasets, and machine learning techniques proliferate, computational algorithms increasingly, invisibly, and often inexplicably shape many social, political, and cultural dynamics. In everything from law and politics to commerce and art, algorithms are powerful structuring logics and sociotechnical forces. But what does it mean when algorithms “fail”? What do we learn about the logics and forces that create algorithms when they are seen to have erred or made a mistake? Seeing algorithms as culture, I argue that algorithmic errors are similarly constructs made by intertwined computational, psychological, organizational, infrastructural, discursive, and normative forces. In this talk I tell three stories of algorithmic error, illustrate their sociotechnical dynamics, and examine the institutional and normative forces that define “failure.” Instead of seeing algorithmic errors as unavoidable or self-evident, I instead see them as evidence of how people think systems should work, who has the power to declare failure, which harms trigger which fixes, and how defining and repairing algorithmic mistakes bounds public problems.

Mike Ananny is an Associate Professor of Communication and Journalism and Affiliated Faculty of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, where he studies the public significance of digital infrastructures, journalistic practices, and algorithmic systems. He co-directs the interdisciplinary USC collective MASTS (Media As SocioTechnical Systems) and the Sloan Foundation project Knowing Machines (with Kate Crawford and Jason Schultz). He is the author of Networked Press Freedom (MIT Press, 2018), co-editor (with Laura Forlano and Molly Wright Steenson) of Bauhaus Futures (MIT Press, 2019), and publishes in various interdisciplinary domains including Journalism Studies, Science and Technology Studies, and Critical Internet Studies. He holds a PhD from Stanford University, a Masters from the MIT Media Laboratory, and has held fellowships and visiting professorships with Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Columbia University’s Tow Center, the Berggruen Institute, the Trudeau Foundation, and the University of Helsinki. He regularly writes for popular press publications including The Atlantic, Wired Magazine, Harvard's Nieman Lab, and the Columbia Journalism Review.

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