Algorithm Matters

With algorithms the hot topic of discussion lately, my mind is led to the infrastructure side of technology and the parameters that set the front lines of technology use. David Nye in Technology Matters gives a great explanation of technology infrastructure and the soft determinism that they exercise:

The concept of technological momentum provides a way to understand how large systems exercise a “soft determinism” once they are in place. Once a society chooses the automobile (rather than the bicycle supplemented by mass transit) as its preferred system of urban transportation, it is difficult to undo such a decision. The technological momentum of a system is not simply a matter of expense, although the cost of building highways, bicycle lanes, or railroad tracks is important. Ultimately, the momentum of a society’s transport system is embodied in the different kinds of cities and suburbs fostered by each form of transportation. Relying on bicycles and streetcars has kept Amsterdam densely populated, which in turn means that relatively few kilometers of streetcar line can efficiently serve the population. If the Dutch were to decide to rely more on the automobile, they would have to rip apart a tightly woven urban fabric of row houses, canals, and small businesses. In contrast, cities such as Houston, Phoenix, and Los Angeles sprawl over larger areas, with more than half the land area devoted to roads, parking lots, garages, gas stations, and other spaces for automobiles. Such a commitment to the automobile has resulted in massive infrastructure investments that make it impractically expensive to shift to mass transit, not least because the houses are so far apart.

To what degree algorithms can be considered “infrastructure”, I don’t know. I think what Nye explains here is that there’s no dividing line, but rather degrees of technology structures that provide us with the choices that eventually sit at our fingertips.

There’s also infrastructure of private organizations to consider. Awareness of who makes any “soft deterministic” choices is a worthwhile awareness to have. Communication of and support for these decisions is important for schools, because it’s often a centralized department that makes these types of choices that will set the parameters for all of the departments that need to run within them. Time spent educating personnel on institutional infrastructure might not be wasted time.


3 thoughts on “Algorithm Matters

  1. Algorithms are something Frances Bell, Mariana Funes and I have been thinking about. Maybe you’ve been following Richard Edwards work?

    Edwards, R. (2015). Knowledge infrastructures and the inscrutability of openness in education. Learning, Media and Technology, (June), 1–14. doi:10.1080/17439884.2015.1006131

    Edwards, R. (2015). Software and the hidden curriculum in digital education. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 23(2), 265–279. doi:10.1080/14681366.2014.977809


  2. I haven’t been following his work, no – I’ve just been noticing discussion on algorithms out there in general, everywhere. More reading to get to now, thanks for the suggestions Jenny.


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