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Thinking critically about and researching algorithms [pdf] (stanford.edu)
102 points by lainon on April 23, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 6 comments



It's an essay on algorithms in general, not related specifically to computer sciences. They talk about algorithms in journalism, for instance. The difference between algorithms, techniques, approaches and other terms they use is rather blurry.


The "critical thinking" Rob Kitchin is talking about is analyzing algorithms' impact with a social lens. Because algorithms affect people's lives, we shouldn't be content with letting them be opaque black boxes.

It seems to have overlap with the themes in the book by Ed Finn "What Algorithms Want - Imagination in the Age of Computing".[1]

Both say that algorithms are intensely studied from a technical perspective. E.g. O(log n) is better than O(n^2), etc.

Their idea is that the algorithms themselves are creating their own "culture" or "reality" and this should be studied through the lens of "humanities" or "sociology" instead of just "mathematics".

E.g. neural net or statistics algorithm computes that Person A is better credit risk than Person B. However, observers notice that Person B is always black and therefore claim that algorithms are (re)creating racial inequality. Or algorithms that provide sentencing guidelines for convicted felons. Or algorithms that diagnose medical problems.

Other writings with somewhat similar themes:

- Cathy O'Neil, "Weapons of Math Destruction - How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy"[2]

- Eli Pariser, "The Filter Bubble"[3]

There doesn't seem a universal term coined that generalizes the ideas in all 4 of those books but nevertheless, I'm sure more and more writers will notice they are talking about similar ideas.

Side observation about language usage... What I notice in all 4 books is that authors are using the word "algorithms" as a catch-all term for "machine learning". They're not really concerned about building-block algorithms such as "quick sort" or "discrete Fourier transform". What they're all talking about is "Facebook machine learning" is imposing X on us, or "Google's machine learning" is making us think Y. For some reason, the word "algorithm" has gained more currency than "machine learning" in these pop science books.

[1] https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/what-algorithms-want

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Weapons-Math-Destruction-Increases-In...

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Filter-Bubble-Personalized-Changing-T...


There are some books which are more concerned with algorithms (in the correct sense of the term) within the field of Software Studies/Digital Humanities/Critical Code Studies.

Some books and articles:

[1] Protocol by Alexander Galloway

[2] 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1));:GOTO 10 by Nick Montfort et al

[3] On "Sourcery" or Code as Fetish by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun

[4] The Exploit by Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker

I can list many more.

There was also a doctoral seminar taught by Alexander Galloway at NYU in 2010 called The Politics of Code. The reason Galloway's name pops up a ton is that he worked with r-s-g.org and has a fair amount of experience coding in addition to his academic credentials in literary theory.


This is probably off-topic, but I find it a bit irritating that in an article about 'critical thinking' the author is quoting a 2012 paper by some Miyazaki to explain the origin of the word 'algorithm'. I thought we knew about al-khwarizmi long before 2012 and that it is good form that when you present a new fact or discovery, you should try to cite the original research rather than somebody who wrote about it last week.


He's doing it because he uses the word "algorithm" in a broader sense than simply mathematical formalism.

I am not particularly sure I agree with this approach but his use of that particular reference is appropriate in this case. In fact good, since he has a non-standard (or at least nonstandard outside his discipline) usage of the term. Domain-specific jargon that is still too new to have become completely institutionalized.


No, I disagree. I think he's doing it because he is building on Miyazaki's work (he refers to it multiple times).

What's sad about this work is that Kitchin isn't really interested in having a technical discussion. Github is apparently "a code library", and where decompilation should have been mentioned, it is absent.

A technical collaborator would have improved the paper in those ways, and assuredly others.




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