Alma—algorithmic matter

Everyday we let algorithms make decisions on our behalf. They sort Google search results, they cause stock exchange to fluctuate, they select matching profiles on Tinder or Linkedin. Those decisions can be insignificant or crucial, visible or not, but algorithms are definitely part of our everyday lives. And yet we are not even trying to understand them.

« Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. »
 Arthur C. Clarke

We should not be fooled, algorithms are not magic. They consist in suits of mathematical operations imagined and built by humans for specific uses, mostly aiming at improving users’ comfort Thus, algorithms are not magic, they are deeply politic! By shaping our lives, they are imposing their creators vision to us, as explained by the French sociologist Dominique Cardon.

We need to change the way we look at algorithms, evolving from a passive almost magical view to an active and more politically aware one. We need to open the black box, and to start understand the intentions that are hiding behind the formulas. As argued by French philosopher Antoinette Rouvroy « the goal is not to require transparency of the code, but transparency of its purposes ». We need to understand everyday algorithms’ purposes to demystify them, question them, reclaim them, and finally use them in service of our own personal purposes.

  • How does Facebook organize our newsfeed publications?
  • How does Google decide web page relevance?
  • How can Siri understand and answer questions we ask?
  • How does Amazon decide its products’ suggestions?
  • How does iPhoto recognize my face on a picture?

I conceived Alma to answer those questions. Alma is a pedagogical kit allowing its users to manipulate algorithms through experimentations. This pedagogical tool is made for everybody and materializes complex concepts through simple manipulations. The experiments alternate explanations and manipulations using apps and physical tokens. The physical interface is designed as an extension of digital layers at the surface of the screen.

Alma is my diploma project for my Master of Product Design at Ensad, Paris.

French version here.