The committee for the 2020 EMCA Best Paper Award, consisting of David Gibson (Chair), Jason Turowetz and Dirk vom Lehn, is pleased to announce the recipient of this year’s award:
“A Not Quite Random Walk: Experimenting with the Ethnomethods of the Algorithm” (Big Data & Society, July-December 2017), by Malte Ziewitz of the Department of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University.
The article uses the deceptively mundane exercise of a stroll around Oxford, guided by simple rules for choosing a way forward at each intersection, to provide an insider’s view of an algorithm. Ziewitz explores how the algorithm is used to make sense of unanticipated situations, how it is modified to maintain workability, and how seemingly neutral rules create ethical dilemmas while also relieving Ziewitz and his walking companion of the need (and opportunity) to communicate and reconcile their respective experiences and priorities. Thus, the article opens the black box of the algorithm and puts people inside, demystifying this central component of modern existence.
Timely, clever, and delicately formulated, the article is a pleasure to read as well as a spur to further research on the often opaque rules that govern expert systems, and, implicitly, a call to scrutinize algorithms in all areas for their alignment with human needs and experiences.