Mechanical Dances

The metaphor of procedurality

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Early in 2015, in his compelling piece in the Atlantic entitled “The Cathedral of Computation,”  Ian Bogost argues against the popular rhetoric that we are living in an age of algorithms. His point is that a belief in the power and importance of computation in our culture has become almost a religion. “Our  supposedly  algorithmic  culture,” he writes, “is  not  a  material  phenomenon  so  much  as  a  devotional  one,  a  supplication  made  to  the  computers  people  have  allowed  to  replace  gods  in  their  minds.”   The pervasiveness of algorithms in our society and economy is an illusion. Human labor is still needed for most products, even in the high tech industries. Humans are in fact still behind a great deal of the sorting, searching and classifying that are supposed to be the hallmarks of algorithmic culture. He points out that “The  algorithmic  metaphor  is  just  a  special  version  of  the  machine  metaphor,  one  specifying  a  particular  kind  of  machine  (the  computer)  and  a  particular  way  of  operating  it  (via  a  step-by-step  procedure  for  calculation).”

The point is well taken. It is certainly important to remember that billions of people live under material conditions that are still only marginally affected (and perhaps not improved) by digital technology). But I cannot agree that the algorithmic metaphor is unimportant because it is a metaphor. Ian is quite right that the algorithmic metaphor is a contemporary version of the older metaphor of the machine. It is the contemporary version of a series of mechanical metaphors that have been influential at least since the seventeenth century. The mechanical clock, the steam engine, the dynamo—all these and other machines have provided metaphors for thinking about human nature or human society, just as digital technologies and procedurality do today. Ian is also right that any such metaphor is at best only a selective account of culture at any given time.    But the power of metaphors is that they are selective: they isolate some feature or quality from the complex fabric of experience.

These cultural metaphors function tautologically: they become true precisely because people find them compelling. A fascination with procedure leads people not only to accept but actively to pursue the proceduralization of their daily lives—to organize their music in playlists, to digitize their banking and health records, to play videogames, to track the number of steps they walk, and to share almost everything on social media.

The willingness to enter into endless procedural loops with digital technology is a very popular way of life in the developed societies of Europe, North America, and Asia.   Historically the interesting question (at least I think it’s interesting) is how the algorithmic metaphor differs from earlier versions of the machine metaphor.

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