The people behind the algorithm | New research project

Algorithms – that is, data calculations that control how and what information on the internet is presented to you – have a big influence on our lives. But what makes us see what we see? Jakob Svensson, docent in media and communication studies at Malmö University and affiliated with Medea, tries to answer this question by looking at the people behind the algorithm.

“There are many notions of what algorithms are and can do, but these notions are far from complete. We tend to mythologize algorithms, which results in that the processes that shape a large part of our lives are in the dark for us. Through my research, I want to change this.”

In the Behind the Algorithm project, Jakob Svensson will bring a sociological perspective to the study of algorithms

Jakob Svensson argues that to be able to say something about the society we live in – and about the impact of different media content on our lives – we must know what happens ‘behind’ our screens. This is what the research project Behind the Algorithm will investigate. With funding from the Swedish Research Council, Jakob Svensson will for two years study the cultural and social aspects that encircle the algorithms that govern our media flows.

“Social and cultural values arguably influence how algorithms work, which in turn influence what we see and why. Silicon Valley is dominated by young white men, and we know that ‘systems analyst’ (in Swedish, systemvetare) is one of the most common professions among men aged 3040 in Stockholm. Thus, the group of people that make the algorithms is very homogeneous. I think this has a big impact on how the algorithms work and thus on what content we encounter on the internet.”

A matter of who defines the problem
In the Behind the Algorithm study, Jakob Svensson aims to bridge the present knowledge gap by applying a sociological perspective to an otherwise technological phenomenon.

“To me, it’s about problem solving. Algorithms are created to solve problems. There is advanced technology behind them, but I’m more interested in the sociological perspective. For example, who defines the problem that the algorithm should solve? What values come into play when programmers and software designers create these algorithms?”

Furthermore, Jakob Svensson argues that there is a power dimension that is important to consider when discussing the role algorithms have in our societies. The general conception of algorithms is that they are neutral, which is far from the truth.

“When Google was accused of being racist because their image search algorithm showed different results depending on ethnicity, they responded to the allegations by saying ‘No, Google is not racist – it is the algorithm that is racist’. They try to shift focus from where the power actually lies – that is, in the group of people that are creating the algorithms.”

—Jakob Svensson

Contribute to positive social development
Jakob Svensson, who is also a teacher at Malmö University, thinks it is important that the discussion about algorithms is integrated into the curriculum. However, he argues that focus should not only be on the negative consequences of algorithms but also how these, and digital media in general, can contribute to positive social development. Malmö University’s program in Media and Communication Studies is opening up for such a discussion.

“Algorithms are often spoken of in negative terms, but you mustn’t forget that they can also be used for good things, as is highlighted in the program. A major part of the program is about entrepreneurship with a focus on social innovation, and we have, for example, had projects where the students have investigated how to develop media services, for example, to promote integration in Malmö.”

Do you work with algorithms? Do you wish to take part in this study? Contact Jacob Svensson to learn more!

This text was originally published as Människorna bakom algoritmen (written by Kajsa Langer)