Public Lecture: Algorithms Rather Than What? Algorithmic Culture in Context, Mon 2 Nov 2015

algorithms rather than what - 2015-10-02

Algorithms Rather Than What? Algorithmic Culture in Context
Speaker: Paul Dourish (University of California, Irvine)
Monday, 2 November 2015, 5pm – 6:30pm
Richard Hoggart Building, Room 137a, Goldsmiths

Public lecture organised by the ERC funded ARITHMUS project (, Department of Sociology.
Please RSVP at

The pioneering computer scientist Niklaus Wirth titled one of his books, “Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs.” Embedded in this gnomic formulation are two issues of relevance for contemporary discussions of algorithmic culture and governance.

The first is that algorithms and programs are not the same thing. An algorithm is a sketch of a program’s potential mechanism; a program is a realization of an algorithm within the constraints of a particular computational environment (including the computer.) Algorithms exist on paper, blackboards, and in talk; programs exist in silicon. The nature of the difference is important, because algorithms and programs can change at different rates, are the products of different kinds of processes, and employ different kinds of logics. When we talk about algorithmic culture, then, we can be led astray if we do not recognize the distinction.

The second is that we need to understand algorithms with relation to data structures, the patterns of data representation upon which computers operate. The relationship between data representation and computational processing is often missing in the way we talk about algorithms and their consequences, and yet data structures are a key intermediate point between, on the one hand, the logics and politics of representation of objects in the world and, on the other, the architectures of digital systems.

Using cases drawn from my current book project, I want to explore these questions and the consequences they might have for how we talk about the cultural dimensions of algorithmic mediation.

Paul Dourish is a Professor of Informatics in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, with courtesy appointments in Computer Science and in Anthropology. His research lies at the intersection of computer science and social science, with a particular interest in ubiquitous and mobile computing and the cultural practices surrounding new media.


Header image by D-Kuru/Wikimedia Commons, license CC-BY-SA-3.0-AT.