Critical Algorithm Studies: Ethnographic Approaches

by May 20, 2019

Announcing an exciting PhD symposium at Aarhus University’s Institute for Advanced Studies, co-sponsored by DATALAB, the Digital Living Research Commons (DLRC), and the Future Making Research Consortium (FMRC).

Description: Recommendation systems are a ubiquitous feature of contemporary cultural life online. Through them, users receive suggestions for music, films, books, and other materials. Nick Seaver’s anthropological studies have revealed a particular tendency among recommendation developers to describe their purpose as ‘hooking’ people – enticing them into frequent or enduring usage. This PhD symposium explores various ways that algorithmic systems are designed to trap, hook, grab, or otherwise capture users. As recommendation systems spread and become practically inescapable, how can critical scholars analyze the epistemic, economic, and technical contexts through the lens of entrapment? Seaver notes, “as recommenders spread across online cultural infrastructures and become practically inescapable, thinking with traps offers an alternative to common ethical framings that oppose tropes of freedom and coercion” (2019).

Dr. Nick Seaver (Tufts University), a leading thinker in this area, joins us for this symposium, along with digital materialities scholar Dr. Debora Lanzeni (Monash University). They, along with Aarhus University Professors Anja Bechmann and Annette Markham, will facilitate a workshop for thinking about how such systems relate to broader infrastructural ecologies of knowledge and technology.


Nick Seaver

Nick Seaver is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Tufts University, where he also teaches in the program on Society, Technology, and Society. His research examines how technologists make sense of concerns they take to be cultural. He is finishing a book on the making of algorithmic music recommendation systems and currently studying the technocultural life of attention in machine learning.

Debora Lanzeni

Debora Lanzeni, PhD, is a researcher at Monash University, focusing on the developers and their practices behind technology. An anthropologist by training, she has been affiliated with STS for many years as a fellow of the IN3 institute in Barcelona. Lanzeni tends to focus on the materiality of technological entanglement, exploring practices related to code production, circulation of code, and the  social changes these entail. In order to approach the work from an ethnographic perspective, she focuses on an ongoing techno-people-things network : Internet of Things.


The symposium is targeted to PhD students, but any participant is welcome, up to 20 seats, from any discipline or location.

Format: This symposium will include a lecture, panel discussion among algorithm and affordance scholars, and a speculative design workshop to consider how “speculative traps” could be used as tools to think about how common recommendation systems are working, or how everyday users might consider ‘trap’ metaphors as a tool to think about the ethics and politics of recommendation systems.

Schedule of Events

13:00 (sharp) – 14:15 Speculative design workshop

14:30 – 15:30 Keynote by Nick Seaver: “Algorithmic systems as traps”

15:45 – 17:00 Panel discussion with Nick Seaver, Anja Bechmann, Debora Lanzeni, and Annette Markham

17:00 – 18:00 Wine reception

Time and Place

27 May 2019
13:00 (sharp! not 13:15) to 17:00
AIAS Room 203
(followed by reception with wine and light snacks)

Recommanded Readings

Recommended readings: