“Six approaches to empirically research algorithms”

An interesting read this morning:

Kitchin, R. (2014). Thinking Critically About and Researching Algorithms, The Programmable City Working Paper 5, Available at SSRN.

As indicated by its title, this paper address the ways to investigate algorithms and the difficulties in doing so. Based on an extensive review of the literature, it highlights the issues at stake in the field of software studies that emerged in the last ten years. It's quite pragmatic with a focus on six ways to empirically research algorithms: "examining source code (both deconstructing code and producing genealogies of production); reflexively producing code; reverse engineering; interviewing designers and conducting ethnographies of coding teams; unpacking the wider socio-technical assemblage framing and supporting algorithms; and examining how algorithms do work in the world." In a discussion of these approaches, Kitchin highlights that they should be combined in order to provide more thorough perspectives

Why do I blog this? Both because it's a resource that may be useful for my students working in this domain, and bc I'm currently writing about algorithmic cultures.

Datahotels are the new datawarehouses


A billboard encountered at Haneda Airport in Tokyo this week. I find it interesting to observe the criteria chosen by the cloud company: we understand here that the service should be easy and that a reliable support might exist (24 hours). This looks quite common in the tech industry. However, I find the two others characteristics quite intriguing: "public cloud" and "system architect" sounds a bit abstract and strange. Perhaps the latter corresponds to the idea of a well-designed system, but I wonder about the notion of "public cloud" itself: what does that mean? Although it might suggest a public access to data, it may consist in something else (perhaps there's a Japanese thing I'm missing here) as it's difficult to sell people a service where all your data are made public.

The graphic design of this ad is also revealing: the blue evocation of the sky – would a cloudy sky be too much in an ad? –, the rolling cloud which looks like seawaves drawn out of a Saint Seiya episode, the use of white fonts, and a logo that reminds of the Air France logotype's comma. That's how a complex technology is presented here. Perhaps one needs ai aircraft carrier's mindset to manage data in the cloud.

And finally, the name is also revealing. "Datahotel" is the new "Datawarehouse". The vocabulary is important here. Our data are now taken care of in an hotel; with a dedicated type of services (and their "system architect"). What's next? Datahavens? Dataheavens? or shall we return to the cyberpunk data-banks from the 80s (only accessible via Ono-Sendai's consoles)?

Why do I blog this? Working on a Cloud Computing project makes me curious of how things are communicated in this domain. As shown here, the whole cloud metaphor is utterly weird and quite disconnected from the infrastructure these services rely on.

Energy Babble: networked radio broadcasting internet content

A series of figures presented in the NORDES paper about Energy Bubble.

A series of figures presented in the NORDES paper about Energy Bubble.

Matthew Plummer-Fernandez – who leads a workshop at ECAL this week for the IIClouds project – pointed me to this intriguing project he was part of, with fellow colleagues at Goldsmith (Tobie Kerridge, Liliana Ovale, and Alex Wilkie). It's called "Energy Babble" (see the paper published at the Nordic Design Research Conference 2013). It's a networked radio appliance drawing content from online sources:

"Synthesised speech files are published from a server for immediate playback by the devices. These sound files are derived from texts from a range of sources, including twitter accounts and policy and activist news publishers. Speech files are also algorithmically generated by the system drawing on historic utterances, also triggered by energy events, and taken from user contributions via the devices’ microphones."

Why do I blog this? Matthew's currently leading a workshop about "botcaves", the hardware required to run bots. He mentioned this project that I find interesting as a way to materialize the aggregation of digital content.



“Real Prediction Machines”

Real Prediction Machines (Auger-Loizeau with Alan Murray and Subramanian Ramamoorthy, 2014) is an intriguing design project about prediction and anticipation based on the explosion of digital data. As explained by Auger-Loizeau:

"This project explores how data and algorithms could be reclaimed for personal use - individuals can select a specific event to be predicted such as a domestic argument; the likelihood of ones own death or the chances of a meteor strike. A service provider then determines the necessary data/sensory inputs required for an algorithm to predict the event. The output from the algorithm controls a visual display on the prediction machine, informing the owner if the chosen event is approaching, receding or impending."

Why do I blog this? I find it relevant to wonder about how specific products and objects can reflect and make tangible the so-called predictions algorithms can provide based on digital data. That's the point here with Auger-Loizeau's project and I'm intrigued by the "modern-mechanical" aesthetic and the absence of a screen; which is an important aspect I think.

New book about 8-bit reggae

Photo by Ferdinand Dervieux.

Photo by Ferdinand Dervieux.

A new dispatch from the Near Future Laboratory: this book that documents the curious collision between video-game culture and reggae music. It's called "8-Bit Reggae: Collision and Creolization" and it's co-published by Volumique (Paris) and the laboratory. As described on their shop:

"it's a book about the unexpected and intriguing culture collision between video game culture and reggae/dub. Why were 8-bit machines like the Commodore 64 or the Nintendo NES used to recreate Jamaicans riddims ? How did such a curious assemblage of rhythms, objects and game systems happen ? Was it because of the nature of the various sub-cultures ? Or was it just a fortuitous exchange between reggae music and 8-bit computing ? This book answers these questions and address the unlikely encounter of Jamaican music with the video game world."

Photo by Ferdinand Dervieux.

Photo by Ferdinand Dervieux.

Although this kind of topic is super niche, it's part of an ongoing effort at the Near Future Laboratory to document intriguing digital practices. After an earlier project about game controller and their evolution, this one's more focused on a niche community that tells a lot about cultural production/consumption.

Photo by Ferdinand Dervieux.

Photo by Ferdinand Dervieux.

Thanks a lot Etienne Mineur for the support/art direction/interest, Julie Chane-Hive for her design contribution, Michèle Laird for the proofreading. Special thanks to Joël Vacheron and Basile Zimmermann for their insightful comments and discussions about this work; the project would have never ben possible without you. Big up to Dubmood, Goto80, Disrupt, Blaise Deville, Paul-Edouard “LEGO Sounds” Mias, Pupajim, WellWell Sound, and Takashi Kawano for their time chatting about 8-bit reggae music.

The Internet of Things at the flea market


I think it's William Gibson who said that part of his speculation process was based on thinking how a piece of technology might end up on the dusty shelves of a pawn shop. That thought came up this morning while running across these two boxes of the Nabaztag. It's intriguing to see "the second first wireless rabbit" (that is, the 2.0 version of the Internet of Things posterchild) in a crappy box along with an air blower, a set of glasses, a polaroid and a deck of playing cards.

Coincidentally, I've heard that the Nabaztag, after almost ten years of bons et loyaux services, is going to be discontinued. So long and thanks for all the fish!