Implications of Persuasive Computer Algorithms

Authored by: Estee Beck

The Routledge Handbook of Digital Writing and Rhetoric

Print publication date:  April  2018
Online publication date:  April  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138671362
eBook ISBN: 9781315518497
Adobe ISBN:


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Computer algorithms emerged as scripts governing machine activity and human behavior. Programmers valorize algorithms as neutral language scripts capable of impartiality and true representation of data—“algorithms” here refers to the computational procedures of input and output of values (or data). These scripts are anything but neutral, but are so often conflated with logos—values of Western philosophical and empirical order, knowledge, and control. By locating algorithms as stripped of style and expression and aligning with truth, programmers rely upon both scientific and rhetorical proofs to gain the approval of their audience(s). In other words, Tarleton Gillespie’s algorithms “produce and certify knowledge” by relying upon empirical science and subject matter experts to affirm the computational procedures as sacred scripts in a system designed to persuade people into action. Of course, certifications and qualifications matter in programming, but reliance upon expertise without examination of underlying suppositions of algorithms leads to false beliefs and habits that erode personal privacy. In this present day, algorithms while employed for simple sort and merge functions are increasingly used to categorize data for production, consumption, and control with the explicit purpose of monetizing data collected by surveillance activity. The problem with this engagement, in so far as algorithms reside beneath the visual interface of computational machines, results in impenetrability of the procedures. This leaves end users—people who use the product—unaware and uninformed of the logic governing machine activity. As such, algorithms are opaque, oftentimes black-boxed, and an invisible law of an untouchable court of the information age.

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