The social sciences have much to say about the cybernetic turn our lives have taken thanks to the use and intermediation of software applications spread through the Internet. The book Algorithmic Culture Before the Internet by Ted Striphas takes the burden of explaining with originality and expertise the deep cultural history of this epochal turn, offering us useful reflections to interpret and make sense of the current expansion of our relations with the machinic world.
The mass diffusion and adoption of information and communication technologies occurred in the decades of Internet’s advent have eventually contributed to delineate a set of cultural practices and meaning shared by billions of people. Due to the intertwining – in the 21st century ever more closely – between the phenomena of computing and those of culture we are now living in a new human and social condition.
The definition of “algorithmic culture” is then intended to designate precisely the poignancy that the programmatic processing of symbolic practices is taking on in such an important field for human communities.
Indeed, much of what we do today, in terms of action and thinking, is intermediated by platforms and applications functionally shaped by the mathematical logic of software (the algorithms).
Ted Striphas, a professor and scholar of cultural studies, who is among the sharpest pioneers in highlighting the profound cultural and social spillovers of the intersection of computational techniques and culture, now wanted to return to the topic with his last book Algorithmic Culture Before the Internet.
As the author himself states, there have been many studies in recent years able to critically analyze the many aspects and implications that digital developments are having in our lives in terms of behavior, expression, understanding and various conditioning.
However, at the same time, he notes the rapid habituation – we might say naturalization – regarding the “terms and conditions” under which all of this has come about – in Striphas’ words, we have not “come to terms with how we come to terms” (p. 245) for living together in an algorithmic culture. This condition is taken so much for granted that the algorithm itself aproblematically enters as a protagonist figure in popular family films – think of Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018) or even in more recent TV series, among other see Mrs. Davis (2023).
Slippages in the frameworks
Yet, the transition we are experiencing is remarkable. Striphas defines algorithmic culture as both “the use of computational processes to sort, classify, and prioritize people, places, objects, and ideas” and “the repertoires of thought, conduct, expression, and feeling that flow from and back into those processes” (p. 5).
The welding of computation and culture then marks the beginning of an important new phase of “reorientation” of practices and meanings in which today so many people find themselves engaged. In a relatively short period of time “a digital army consisting of ‘automatic critics and censors’” has assumed a growing responsibility for guiding us “in discovering personal and professional connections, products and services, news and knowledge, taste and opinions” replacing human cultural intermediaries such as “critics, clerks, recruiters, matchmakers, scholars, teachers, editors, curators, compilers, and librarians” (p. 4).
Then talking about and investigate algorithmic culture means having to enter in “the role of computers, large data sets, and mathematics in establishing, maintaining, and transforming the frameworks by means of which human beings orient our judgments, actions, and dispositions toward one another and toward the surrounding world” (p. 6).
Culture and computation, a long genesis
Faced with such high stakes the author is unwilling to take anything for granted, starting with the very defining sense of the terms culture and algorithm, and their fusional mix. The problem then is to penetrate, with a non-deterministic approach, into the history and nature of the intertwining of culture and computation – a relationship that both comes from afar and is “a moving target” (p. 7), reverberating in the actuality of our human and social issues that are as unresolved as they are overlooked.
Through his deep expertise in cultural studies Striphas decided to follow a great precursor in the field, Raymond Williams, using his teachings and methodologies to stimulate and renew a heuristic methodology – following the evolution in language and common experience of the use of particular keywords – in order to bring out what we have difficulty in bringing into focus yet. Starting, not surprisingly, from the very word “culture” – one of the most complicated terms of reference in our history to define, as well as its very relationship with technology.
Using generously a vast array of social sciences – sociology, anthropology, literary studies, comparative philology, history of mathematics – Striphas is so able to help us gain a deeper and more comprehensive perspective on current affairs through the reconstruction of some key points that have marked a past – even a very distant one.
A past that – as the author will show – has never completely passed and that involves themes as “culture-as-governance, computation, state politics, war, imperialism/colonialism, race, gender, sexuality, family, normativity, and totalitarianism” (p. 167).
In his words, it is like repeating the journey on an escalator that sets out to rotate in reverse “instead of traveling up, the motor shifts into reverse, and you travel down. As your point of departure recedes, you start to discover what precedes and surrounds it, and gradually you grasp the broader context within which your starting point – your present – exists” (p. 228).
Countering the cult of newness by engineers
In this metaphor we find the seed of another famous one useful to counteract the predominant storytelling of the engineers of cyberspace.
Faced with the cult of newness (the high-tech disruption) that the digital turn has favored – in which we find ourselves entangled among hopes, conveniences and shadowy heaps of anxiety – Striphas’s witty work is distinguished by its taste to recover the precious intellectual sensitivity of many authoritative cultural scholars.
Among the many, we like to recall here Walter Benjamin on the fact that historically there is much repetition in the new that is born. Drawing inspiration from the angel (Angelus Novus) painted by Paul Klee – which advances into the future with its gaze looking backwards, becoming in his imagery “the angel of history” (Benjamin 1940, p. 392) – he invites us to reflect critically on the construction of “the rapture of the unique, the new, the yet unborn” because “is combined with that bliss of experiencing something once more, of possessing once again, of having lived” (1933, p. 715.)
Note: This article was published in Sociology International Journal (MedCrave), Volume 7 – Issue 5, on October 12, 2023, https://medcraveonline.com/SIJ/SIJ-07-00350.pdf.
Benjamin, W. 1933, “Agesilaus Santander (Second Version),” in ID. Selected Writings. Volume 2, Part 2 1931-1934 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2005), 714-16.
Benjamin, W., 1940, “On the Concept of History,” in ID. Selected Writings. Volume 4, 1938-1940 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006), 389-400.
Mrs. Davis (Peacock, 2023).
Ralph Breaks the Internet (Disney Animation Studios, 2018).
Striphas, T., Algorithmic Culture Before the Internet (New York: Columbia University Press, 2023).