Algorithmic Antagonisms: Resistance, Reconfiguration, and Renaissance for Computational Life
Media International Australia
Co-edited by Luke Heemsbergen, Emiliano Treré, and Gabriel Pereira
“Fuck the Algorithm!
Fuck the Algorithm!
Fuck the Algorithm!”
The chant of hundreds of UK school students echoed across the streets in front of the UK’s Department of Education. Students, livid, were protesting their chances of university entrance being snuffed out or otherwise manipulated by ‘the algorithm’. The exasperation focussed on the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation’s automated process for estimating marks for final exams that were cancelled due to COVID-19: ‘the algorithm’ deployed had taken predictable biases (Noble, 2018) and delivered inflationary marks to private school students, while deflating the marks (and dreams) of students at government schools and of lower socio-economic status.
This example from 2020 is just one that shows how problematics of algorithmic governance pervade society. Yet the focus here on algorithmic antagonisms is not meant to comment on being oppressed by algorithms, or resisting their power through protest, or even being resigned to their effects. Instead it asks what happens when energy is put into fucking with algorithms to produce political movement within societies that are increasingly governed by them? Specifically, this introduction and the papers that follow in the special issue turn the critical study of data to consider algorithms’ antagonistic and tactical uses.
1. Introduction to algorithmic antagonisms:
Resistance, reconfiguration, and renaissance for computational life
by Luke Heemsbergen, Emiliano Treré, and Gabriel Pereira
2. Exploring user agency and small acts of algorithm engagement in everyday media use
by Patrick Heiberg Kapsch
Based on participant-driven media use tracking and self-reflexive media use Vlogs, this article explores how young adult media users make sense of their user agency vis-à-vis algorithms in digital media and how they try actualizing it through reflexive and mundane enactments of algorithmic systems. The article proposes to adapt the concept of ‘small acts of engagement’ to grasp the productive and agentic potentials of how users enact algorithms purposively in daily media use. By engaging research participants actively in reflections to better understand, and possibly respond to the influence of algorithmic power in daily media use, the study unfolds common boundaries of users’ reflexive capabilities, showing how exercising user agency in a datafied age is increasingly complex and prospective, yet not merely limited by algorithmic power. As a result, the article discusses the methodological implications and potentials of engaging media users in reflections and actions to shape their communicative agency, which might be a possible step towards mobilizing algorithmic literacy.
3. Becoming intimate with algorithms:
Towards a critical antagonism via algorithmic art
by Tanja Wiehn
This article takes departure in the notion of intimacy to identify the critical dependencies with contemporary algorithms. The presented concept of algorithmic intimacies points to how contemporary life is premised on the co-habitation with algorithms which poses various challenges to tactical approaches against algorithmic forms of governance. The article argues that thinking through these algorithmic intimacies allows to acknowledge the multi-dependency on digital infrastructures, the difficulties to counteract algorithmic governance, and the impossibility of fully stepping outside of these structures of dominance. Taking the vantage point in the analysis of three artworks, the article contemplates the potential of artistic practices as formulations of antagonistic strategies. Through the analyses, the article suggests to contend with these intimacies to better situate and understand the stakes of algorithmic ubiquity.
4. The oppositional affordances of data activism
by Dimitra L. Milioni & Venetia Papa
This study draws on several data activism projects and applies discursive interface analysis to understand the material means by which activist software strives to empower users vis-à-vis data power. The analysis uncovers four types of oppositional affordances: (i) enabling the use of hidden affordances (ii) imagining new affordances (iii) creating meta-affordances (resignifying perceptible affordances of corporate platforms and reconstructing their meaning), and (iv) creating anti-affordances (hindering or distorting corporate platforms’ affordances to the extent that they do not perform their intended function). Although not without limitations, oppositional affordances reveal the actual agentic possibilities of data activism for users other than activists to affect the very algorithms that produce them as datafied subjects. The proposed typology provides a means for further empirical analysis of critical software and its subversive potential for users. The article concludes with a critical discussion of data activism as a means of vernacular critical praxis.
5. Vernacular Visibility and Algorithmic Resistance in the Public Expression of Latin American Feminism
by Gabriela Elisa Sued, María Concepción Castillo-González, Claudia Pedraza, Dorismilda Flores-Márquez, Sofía Álamo, María Ortiz, Nohemí Lugo, & Rosa Elba Arroyo
This article seeks to understand how Latin American feminist public expression has gained algorithm-mediated visibility on social media. To this end, a cross-platform analysis was conducted for two issues: the legalisation of abortion in Argentina and the struggle to eliminate violence against women. The data were collected on four platforms: Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube through the representative hashtags, ‘#abortolegal2020’, ‘#25N’, and ‘#niunamenos’. Digital critical methods were employed to gather data and approach high-visibility users, visual messages, and hashtagging practices. The findings reveal two configurations of algorithmic mediated visibility, formed by assemblages of actors, formats, and knowledge: platform vernaculars and algorithmic resistance. Both result in a mutual shaping between platforms, seeking to impose a quantitative logic of visibility, and feminist actors, using the tactics of algorithmic resistance to give visibility to the content, aesthetics, and resignified messages about their struggles.
6. Algorithmic resistance as political disengagement
by João C. Magalhães
This article suggests that algorithmic resistance might involve a particular and rarely considered kind of evasion—political disengagement. Based on interviews with ordinary Brazilian users of Facebook, it argues that some people may stop acting politically on social media platforms as a way of avoiding an algorithmic visibility regime that is felt as demeaning their civic voices. Three reasons given by users to explain their disengagement are discussed: the assumption that, by creating bubbles, algorithms render their citizenship useless; the understanding that being seen on Facebook entails unacceptable sacrifices to their values and well-being; and the distress caused by successfully attaining political visibility but being unable to fully control it. The article explores the normative ambiguities of this type of algorithmic resistance, contextualizing it in Brazil’s autocratization process.
7. Resistance and refusal to algorithmic harms:
Varieties of ‘knowledge projects’
by Maya Indira Ganesh & Emanuel Moss
Industrial, academic, activist, and policy research and advocacy movements formed around resisting ‘machine bias’, promoting ‘ethical AI’, and ‘fair ML’ have discursive implications for what constitutes harm, and what resistance to algorithmic influence itself means, and is deeply connected to which actors makes epistemic claims about harm and resistance. We present a loose categorization of kinds of resistance to algorithmic systems: a dominant mode of resistance as ‘filtering up’ and being translated into design fixes by Big Tech; and advocacy and scholarship which bring a critical frame of lived experiences and scholarship around algorithmic systems as socio-technical entities. Three recent cases delve into how Big Tech responds to harms documented by marginalized groups; these highlight how harms are valued differently. Finally, we identify modes of refusal that recognize the limits of Big Tech’s resistance; built on practices of feminist organizing, decoloniality, and New-Luddism, they encourage a rethinking of the place and value of technologies in mediating human social and personal life; and not just how they can deterministically ‘improve’ social relations.
8. The emergence of algorithmic solidarity:
unveiling mutual aid practices and resistance among Chinese delivery workers
by Zizheng Yu, Emiliano Treré, & Tiziano Bonini
This study explores how Chinese riders game the algorithm-mediated governing system of food delivery service platforms and how they mobilize WeChat to build solidarity networks to assist each other and better cope with the platform economy. We rely on 12 interviews with Chinese riders from 4 platforms (Meituan, Eleme, SF Express and Flash EX) in 5 cities, and draw on a 4-month online observation of 7 private WeChat groups. The article provides a detailed account of the gamification ranking and competition techniques employed by delivery platforms to drive the riders to achieve efficiency and productivity gains. Then, it critically explores how Chinese riders adapt and react to the algorithmic systems that govern their work by setting up private WeChat groups and developing everyday practices of resilience and resistance. This study demonstrates that Chinese riders working for food delivery platforms incessantly create a complex repertoire of tactics and develop hidden transcripts to resist the algorithmic control of digital platforms.
9. We’ve always been antagonistic:
algorithmic resistances and dissidences beyond the Global North
by Gabriel Pereira, Bruno Moreschi, André Mintz, & Giselle Beiguelman
In this article we suggest that otherwise unacknowledged histories of technological antagonism can help us (artists, activists, and researchers) to more deeply appreciate the foundations on which we develop activist resistances to contemporary computing. Departing from the case of Brazil, our goal is to bridge historical and contemporary perspectives by: (1) discussing the everyday practises of technological dissidence in the country, and how appropriation has been used to resist unequal power structures; (2) presenting how particular tactical ruptures in the history of art and media activism have sought to contaminate and re-envision networked technologies; (3) exploring the particular notions of algorithmic antagonism that two contemporary projects (PretaLab/Olabi and Silo/Caipiratech) advance, and how they relate to their historical counterparts. In sum, these different threads remind us that we’ve always been antagonistic, and that recognizing a longer genealogy of technological dissidences and ruptures can strengthen current practises against algorithmic oppressions.
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