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Literatures of an Algorithmic World

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Organizer: Ian Butcher

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Algorithms are a perplexing force in society today, at once hidden and omnipresent, with various and polarizing opinions about their influence. For some  algorithms are simply one of many tools that are now deployed in the service of our connected lives. For others, though, they are a troubling and pernicious phenomena that becomes more dangerous because of their status as what Frank Pasquale calls a "black box," in which "we have no clear
idea of just how far much of this information can travel, how it is used, or its consequences." That there are consequences to the proliferation of surveillance tools and the algorithmic processes used to extract, process, and operationalize the data from those tools is clear, particularly for racialized and marginalized people, as scholars like Safiya Nobel, Simone Browne, and Toby Beauchamp have demonstrated.


Despite this, algorithms often remain frustratingly opaque and concrete. How can we understand them and represent their processes, the relationships they create, and the world(s) that they structure? Can literature do this successfully, helping to render legible for us this algorithmic world, or can it only register the gaps where Pasquale's black box goes to work? How can literature help us to understand these tools and their consequences in particular regional, national, and local contexts, where particular aspects of identity inflect their inputs and outputs? Finally, how can literature demonstrate types of knowledge that resist being captured by these tools and their processes and what can that tell us about ways to exist with and against the algorithms that surround and enmesh us?

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