A workshop on methods and approaches for studying algorithmic systems

Written by Simy Kaur Gahonia

On October 31 and November 1, I participated in a workshop on methods and approaches for social science studies of algorithms. The workshop was the second in a series of three with the overarching theme of Nordic perspectives on algorithmic systems, funded by NOS-HS. Because the question is, as the organizers ask, could there be a particular and productive Nordic approach to studying algorithms and their practices? For this purpose, some 30 researchers made their way to Scrollbar at ITU, where the method-specific workshop took place; The previous workshop in the series dealt with concepts and metaphors of algorithmic systems (hosted in Stockholm), and the third is set to think up potential interventions (hosted in Helsinki).

ETHOS Lab’s Marisa Cohn and Pedro Ferreira were spearheading the organization of this second workshop at ITU. I lent a hand as ETHOS Lab Assistant, but also as someone who is interested in computational and algorithmic thinking as philosophy and knowledge paradigms. It was no doubt also a good networking opportunity, which was actually made very explicit by the workshop series organizers: here was an opportunity for both junior and senior scholars to convene on a topic of social science research on technology.

The possible Nordic perspectives were explored exactly by researchers at universities across the Nordics. Participants came to the method and approaches workshop from institutions in Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Over two days we went through everything from somewhat classic keynote and case panels to experimental game design as method.

On the first day, after a warm welcome and breakfast, the keynote panel took place. Researchers from very different disciplines were asked to present their thoughts on, among other things, algorithms as object of study.

On the case panel, we saw many ETHOS Lab alumni: Bastian Jørgensen, Cæcilie Laursen and Silja Vase. Along with visiting PhD student Rikke Torenholt, they presented empirical material from their research. These were all cases were algorithmic systems and practices were somehow present. The case presentations were a good way to ground the discussions and work to come in the workshop, because after the panels, we split into groups to further explore the methodologies of the cases, as well as potentials for looking at and gathering empirical material for studies of algorithms with other kinds of methods. Here, a deck of so-called ‘methods cards’ were good prompts for discussing the cases and thinking up new methods.

Another activity was the mapping of methods encountered in the cases and during the day. The most challenging part of this was that we had to map them however we wanted… this led to a lot of creativity in how to present the methods and their uses and meanings. The resulting maps were based everything from axes, spirals, landscapes and phylogenetic trees.

October 31. I present my group’s map of methods. Photo by Mace Ojala.

Day 2 of the workshop was dedicated to exploring game design as a method for thinking about and with algorithms. Michael Hockenhull and Mace Ojala presented a game design workshop. It was inspired by Joseph Dumit’s workshop on game-design as STS research (Dumit, 2017). In our workshop, game design was a way for us to think through practice settings where algorithmic systems figure. These settings were designated to the groups at random. We were encouraged to take inspiration from existing games and game pieces, but also reminded that we could think entirely out of the box–so long as we incorporated some methods, fx from the methods cards, and managed to work in some surprise constraints given to us midway through the workshop. It was a very fun and generative experience, and my group actually managed to conjure up a nice little game about how to do infrastructural inversion in a higher education institution!

After an intense game design workshop, we went for a walk around Søndre Campus, two and two; paired up with a person we may not have engaged with so much throughout the two days. We were then able to gather concentration for a keynote talk by Ann Light on ‘disciplining the organism’. Just another way to engage algorithm studies! The final wrap-up took place in AIR Lab, where Head of Lab, Jonas Fritsch, and Lab Manager, Halfdan Hauch, presented some of the lab’s installations. We also got to see first-hand some of Rosemary Lee’s work with GANS and instagram photos.

Over two days, we engaged the topic of algorithmic systems and the methods and approaches for studying them in many exciting ways. We connected many researchers across disciplines and countries, and I hope to be able to join the final workshop in Helsinki.