Curator Introduction: Organisms in a World of Algorithms

dhocutt's picture

Although it’s not standard protocol for the MediaCommons Field Guide, I’d like to contribute a brief editorial perspective on developing the topic and survey question and requesting contributions from among colleagues old and new. First and most important, I offer sincere gratitude to all who responded to my email invitations to contribute. So many whose work I consider instrumental in shaping my research agenda replied warmly to my request, either to agree enthusiastically to contribute or regretfully to decline the invitation but suggest other colleagues I might (and did) invite. Such responses encouraged and strengthened my resolve to continuing exploring algorithms as applied rhetoric (Ingraham, 2014), encouragement and strength I needed.

My interest in algorithms originates in my profession as a web manager on a continuing higher education marketing team. My interest piqued at the intersection of a practical and a theoretical approach to algorithms. The practical approach involved the function of algorithms in Google Analytics, a tool with which I have become intimately familiar. I completed a brief study of Google Analytics as an object of study during a Theories of Networks class taught by Julia Romberger and Shelley Rodrigo; the study highlighted the remarkable levels of control over data and information flow integral to the function of Google Analytics in tracking website traffic. The theoretical approach involved a more convoluted pathway via game studies. A doctoral colleague I’ve collaborated with on research into the use of Google Drive in the composition classroom, Maury Brown, introduced me to the use of algorithms as organizational patterns for rhetorical choices in game design, a reference that turned me toward Ian Bogost (2007) and procedural rhetoric and, eventually, to Ingraham’s chapter “Toward an Algorithmic Rhetoric.” I am deeply indebted to these colleagues, and especially to Ingraham and Rodrigo for their contributions to this collection.

Since these encounters, I see algorithms at work everywhere. For example, I attended a BBC Future event called the World Changing Ideas Summit in October 2014, where leading-edge thinkers and inventors shared what they believed would be the upcoming best ideas in education, the social sciences, medicine, and more. Here I heard the first inklings of Google’s forays into the intersection of education and artificial intelligence from Alfred Spector, Vice President of Research at Google — powered by algorithms. I also learned about the use of drones to automatically conduct military operations and to deliver goods without direct human guidance — powered by algorithms. And I learned about the implications of self-driving vehicles on human experience, on the use of virtual reality in journalism, and the arrival of social robots — all powered by algorithms. Algorithms circumscribe our daily experiences, from the ads we’re exposed to on myriad media (even that digital roadside billboard responds to the amount of traffic on the road) to the results of our searches on Google, Facebook, YouTube, Bing, Yahoo and more. Our computers, tablets, and smartphones are, at their core, collections of deeply encoded algorithmic procedures running in response to geolocation, wired and wireless signals, and gesture, voice, and text inputs. Traffic control systems, food service cashier terminals, delivery logistics systems, learning management systems, content management systems — these and more represent intersections of daily lived experience among algorithms.

This field guide seeks to identify and question these points of intersection, to explore algorithms and the worlds of code, function, structure, and outcomes they inhabit as another of Cargile-Cook’s (2002) layered literacies. As curator of this collection, I invite you to read these contributions and the responses they generate, and to respond in kind, to become part of a conversation that seeks to understand what it means to be an algorithm in a world of organisms — and to be an organism in a world of algorithms.


Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive games: The expressive power of videogames. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Cargile Cook, K. (2002). Layered literacies: A theoretical frame for technical communication pedagogy. Technical Communication Quarterly, 11(1), 5-29.

Ingraham, C. (2014). Toward an algorithmic rhetoric. In G. Verhulsdonck & M. Limbu (Eds.), Digital rhetoric and global literacies: Communication modes and digital practices in the networked world (pp. 62-79). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.