The Cathedral of Computation: Are Algorithms Our New Gods?

January 23rd, 2015

When ‘the World’ was wilderness, humans saw the forces of nature as gods, the ruling agents of reality and fate. Now that ‘the World’ is a society increasingly moved and shaken by the forces of technology, the myth is about the almighty Algorithm. How does that myth occlude our reality and shape our fate?

We are progressing inexorably towards a future in which artificially intelligent, self-directing machines will operate among us. How society views the nature and role of programs and machines in the world can strongly influence the imagination and aspirations of those producing them. Consequently, some of the world’s top scientists and technologists have been issuing warnings against the potential dangers of machines becoming our masters – or even successors – and are calling for pledges of social responsibility from technologists.

In The Cathedral of Computation, Ian Bogost compellingly analyzes the nature of our advancing cultural beliefs around the superiority and influence of software algorithms: those distillations of scientific understanding into reductive models of belief, observation, conclusion and action. But, what is lost in these reductionist models? Often, it is humanity. Bogost thus argues for the necessity of discriminating between an algorithmic culture and a society enhanced by computers.

If algorithms aren’t gods, what are they instead? Like metaphors, algorithms are simplifications, or distortions. They are caricatures. They take a complex system from the world and abstract it into processes that capture some of that system’s logic and discard others. And they couple to other processes, machines, and materials that carry out the extra-computational part of their work.

 Read the full article on The Atlantic, here.