Escher, Algorithms and Decisions made behind Closed Servers

By Diego Mastroianni and Claire Ingram, OCIS Student Representatives
Monday might not be a very popular day during the whole year, but at the Academy it must be one of the most popular ones. For OCIS, it is a packed day full of interesting presentations, which often finishes with a triple event involving a brilliant keynote, followed by the division business meeting and the official reception. And this year in Vancouver it was no different. More than presenting a single paper or research in progress, keynotes provide speakers an opportunity to make connections across different stages in their career and synthesize years of research in a little more than one hour.

The guest speaker for 2015 in Vancouver was Prof. Wanda Orlikowski (MIT) who needs no introduction. The title of her talk – “Performing Research, Researching Performativity” – might be economic in words, but as one could expect from Prof. Orlikowski, deep in content (and even a little humorous).

Prof. Orlikowski started the talk by introducing four different phenomena, with no apparent commonality, such as the kidney exchange program, the New London Cafe, eBooks and bottled orange juice. But when guided by her train of thought, the connection between these four phenomena become apparent: “they only exist because of the operation of complex algorithms and large-scale heterogeneous data with multiple, distributed infrastructure involving networked, digital platforms.” Got it?

If not, fortunately she was there to provide more context: these algorithmic phenomena are different than those that existed in the past for a number of reasons. And these differences make our old methods of research obsolete if we want to understand what is going on. We can do an ethnography and observe people in meetings, but we can’t observe code that is running on distributed servers. Not only are algorithmic phenomenon inscrutable, they are also highly dynamic and contingent on execution.

So how to study them?

Before she provided her take on the answer, she walked us through her own trajectory and the different turns she has taken over her career. This walkthrough of her career – papers and studies that the audience knew quite well – was beautifully illustrated with her personal account of where her thinking was at the time.

Her way of illustrating these different “explorations,” as she called them, was simple, yet powerful. Through drawings from Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher, she walked us through her first turn on the “significance of the social.” By studying interpretations, interactions and emergence, she was interested in change that is almost imperceptible when it happens, but that slowly becomes substantial over time, like the image below:


Her second turn was focused on exploring the “primacy of practice,” on paying attention to how phenomena are enacted through everyday action. As an example, she shared a study that examined the proliferation of mobile email and found how the everyday communication activities of professionals enacted, over time, a collective shift in professional norms and identities that required them to be available all the time. She found inspiration once more in an Escher drawing that highlights the importance of practice in producing reality:


And finally back to her most recent exploration, she focused on how “materiality matters.” While her earlier work had highlighted that the “IT Artefact” was typically missing from previous theories, she now believed – pointing to the algorithmic phenomena she cited at the beginning of the talk – that drawing clear boundaries between use and artefact was not feasible. She argued that we need new kinds of research approaches. Because algorithmic phenomena are too complex and dynamic to be effectively studied by a single apparatus, we also need multiple, diverse new tools. Citing Annamarie Mol, she argued that the point is not to capture reality “as it really is,” but to realize that the world is a becoming. In other words, she invited the audience to shift our understanding of these phenomena and be open to emergent possibilities.

Thanking the Canadian hospitality, she concluded by quoting a line from a Leonard Cohen song (from the aptly titled album: The Future) that goes: “forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in.”

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