The National Center for Science and Civic Engagement at Stony Brook University hosted a meeting of over twenty experts, scholars, artists, and informal educators “Algorithms and Us.” Funded by a “Chairman’s Grant” from the National Endowment for the Humanities (GA-255924-17), the meeting took place May 4-5 and was hosted by the Department of Technology and Society and the Institute for Advanced Computational Studies (IACS) at Stony Brook.
The goal of “Algorithms and Us” was to explore humanistic implications of “big data” and the algorithms that organize it, including the historical, ethical, civic, and cultural impact of this rapidly expanding technological phenomenon. In keeping with NCSCE’s mission of advancing both formal and informal STEM learning through the investigation of complex civic challenges, “Algorithms And Us” was a first step in crafting a strategy for large-scale public programming that would increase awareness and understanding of the role that data analytics play in our civic and social lives. Executive Director Eliza Reilly serves as PI of the project. Stony Brook departments were represented by Dave Ferguson of Technology and Society and Robert Harrison, Director of IACS, and Margaret Schedel, Consortium of Digital Art, Culture, and Technology. Peter Fristedt, Sr. Program Officer, and Elizabeth Tran, Sr. Program Officer in the Office of Digital Humanities, represented the NEH. SENCER-ISE Senior Advisor Marsha Semmel worked closely with NCSCE to identify national participants for the meeting.
The meeting was facilitated by Lance Weiler, Director of the Digital Storytelling Lab at Columbia University. Following the first night’s introductions and orientation, participants were invited to experience Háček, an audio-visual, interactive physical and VR installation that uses IP data to generate to a sonic and visual display. The project was created and managed by a team of Stony Brook University faculty and students lead by Margaret Schedel and Melissa Clark.
The second day of the meeting focused on generating and refining concepts for programming which addresses the impact of algorithms on modern society, but was deliberately framed to illuminate algorithms by looking past their less savory uses in marketing manipulation, surveillance, or political targeting, by focusing on their potential power to improve civic and social life. The facilitation of the meeting used the “world cafe” format, in which a large group divides and then rearranges over multiple rounds of collaboration, in large and small groups, and interdisciplinary teams were charged with co-creating “prototypes” of imaginary products that leveraged the power of algorithms to serve humanistic purposes. Examples included projects that used algorithms to foster community action, “apps” that helped people to venture out of their geographic and ideological comfort zones, or an algorithm to help artists use spontaneity and random prompts as a spur to creativity. The meeting concluded with a wrap-up conversation about further resources and texts which would be useful to frame programs or advance deeper understanding of this complex topic.
Next steps for the meeting include the framing of potential national partnerships program proposals for large-scale public humanities programs that explore the impact of algorithms on individuals, communities, and civil society.