Disentanglement from my lifestream: wrapping up algorithmic cultures and EDC 2020

‘Entanglement’ (ellen x silverberg, Flickr)

As I disentangle myself from my lifestream feeds, and reflect on the course, I consider how I have perceived and been influenced by the algorithmic systems involved.

Google and Twitter were consistent influences, the latter through new/existing connections and via #mscedc#AlgorithmsForHer and #ds106, and I saved/favourited (often highly ranked) resources to Pocket, YouTube and SoundCloud (and other feeds).

While I had some awareness of these algorithms, alterations to my perception of the ‘notion of an algorithm’ (Beer 2017: 7) has shaped my behaviour. Believing I “understand” how Google “works”, reading about the Twitter algorithm and reflecting on ranking/ordering have altered my perceptions, and reading about ‘learning as “nudging”‘ (Knox et al. 2020: 38) made me think twice before accepting the limiting recommendations presented to me.

Referring to the readings, these algorithmic operations are interwoven with, and cannot be separated from, the social context, in terms of commercial interests involved in their design and production, how they are ‘lived with’ and the way this recursively informs their design (Beer 2017: 4). Furthermore, our identities shape media but media also shapes our identities (Pariser 2011). Since ‘there are people behind big data’ (Williamson 2017: x-xi), I am keen to ‘unpack the full socio-technical assemblage’ (Kitchin 2017: 25), uncover ideologies, commercial and political agendas (Williamson 2017: 3) and understand the ‘algorithmic life’ (Amoore and Piotukh 2015) and ‘algorithmic culture’ (Striphas 2015) involved.

During my ‘algorithmic play’ with Coursera, its “transformational” “learning experiences” and self-directed predefined ‘learning plans’ perhaps exemplify Biesta’s (2005) ‘learnification’. Since ‘algorithms are inevitably modelled on visions of the social world’ (Beer 2017: 4), suggesting education needs “transforming” and (implied through Coursera’s dominance of “tech courses”) ‘the solution is in the hands of software developers’ (Williamson 2017: 3) exposes a ‘technological solutionism’ (Morozov 2013) and Californian ideology (Barbrook and Cameron 1995) common to many algorithms entangled in my lifestream. Moreover, these data-intensive practices and interventions, tending towards ‘machine behaviourism’ (Knox et al. 2020), could profoundly shape notions of learning and teaching.

As I consider questions of power with regards to algorithmic systems (Beer 2017: 11) and the possibilities for resistance, educational institutions accept commercial “EdTech solutions” designed to “rescue” them during the coronavirus crisis. This accelerated ‘datafication’ of education, seen in context of wider neoliberal agendas, highlights a growing urgency to critically examine changes to pedagogy, assessment and curriculum (Williamson 2017: 6).

However, issues of authorship, responsibility and agency are complex, for algorithmic systems are works of ‘collective authorship’, ‘massive, networked [boxes] with hundreds of hands reaching into them’ (Seaver 2013: 8-10). As ‘processes of “datafication” continue to expand and…data feeds-back into people’s lives in different ways’ (Kennedy et al. 2015: 4), I return to the concept of ‘feedback loops’ questioning the ‘boundaries of the autonomous subject’ (Hayles 1999: 2). If human-machinic boundaries are blurred and autonomous will problematic (ibid.: 288), we might consider algorithmic systems/actions in terms of ‘human-machinic cognitive relations’ (Amoore 2019: 7) or ‘cognitive assemblages’ (Hayles 2017), entangled intra-relations seen in context of sociomaterial assemblages and performative in nature (Barad 2007; Introna 2016; Butler 1990) – an ‘entanglement of agencies’ (Knox 2015).

I close with an audio/visual snippet and a soundtrack to my EDC journey


My EDC soundtrack:

My EDC soundtrack cover image

View references

Michael commented on Susan’s lifestream – Week 2 Summary – enhancement & (dis)embodiment

Week 2 Summary – enhancement & (dis)embodiment

Michael Wolfindale:

Great summary and fascinating points!

Reflecting specifically on the idea of ‘distributed cognition’, and what this might mean for education, brought me across an article where Hayles (2008) discusses the idea in context of ‘slippingglimpse’, a verbal-visual collaboration involving a videographer, poet and programmer and consisting of videos of moving water associated with scrolling poetic text.

Amongst other things, Hayles (2008: 23) discusses the ‘collision/conjunction of human and non-human cognition’, as well as ‘non-conscious parts of cognition’. One example of the latter might be a musician who has learnt a piece ‘by heart’ and ‘knows the moves in her body better than in her mind’ (I remember the phrase ‘muscle memory’ from piano lessons!).

She also discusses the ‘non-conscious performance of the intelligent machine’ (for example, learning from ‘computed information’), as well as ‘the capacity of artificial evolution for creative invention’ (such as using image-editing software).

Another example is reading, which some describe as ‘a whole-body activity that involves breathing rhythms, kinaesthesia, proprioception, and other unconscious or non-conscious cognitive activities’ (Hayles 2008: 16). The work ‘slippingglimpse’ itself ‘requires and mediates upon multimodal reading as a whole body activity’ (ibid.: 18).

While I am still processing the implications of these ideas for education (particularly the way they complicate individual agency), these examples have certainly been food for thought and helped me to think beyond the Cartesian mind/body dualism!

Michael saved in Pocket: ‘Unthought Meets The Assemblage Brain’ (N. Katherine Hayles and Tony D. Sampson)

Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry
Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry


What transpires in the unmediated space-time excess that moves, at once, between and alongside cognition and recognition, between and alongside formation and information, between and alongside prehension and comprehension? Following upon their most recent books—N Katherine Hayles’  Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Unconscious (University of Chicago, 2017) and Tony D Sampson’ s The Assemblage Brain: Sense Making in Neuroculture (University of Minnesota, 2016), the convergences and divergences that emerge and weave throughout this conversation are quite revealing.

View full article

I continue to consider the lines that often seem drawn between education/technology, ‘human’/’machine’, conscious/nonconscious and so on…

An article I shared previously asked ‘How do machines think?’ Yet, from a critical posthumanist perspective, what does it mean ‘to think’?

I reflect on this question whilst exploring the ideas of ‘cognitive assemblages’ and ‘nonconscious cognition’ in this discussion between N. Katherine Hayles and Tony D. Sampson…

Michael saved in Pocket: ‘Cognitive Assemblages?’

Illustration: Zbyněk Baladrán


Reading N. Katherine Hayles’ Unthought (University of Chicago Press, 2017), I’m struck by her notion of ‘cognitive assemblages’ to describe human-technical interaction which she discusses as fully imbricated. I wonder if the women and men whose careers in technology-driven work contexts we are exploring in Nordwit understand themselves as cognitive assemblages? In Hayles’ work agency is distributed, as are many other things such as responsibility – but do our research participants think of themselves in that way? The people I have interviewed in the context of Digital Humanities tend to take a rather instrumentalist view of technology, and we might want to ask, what difference does it make if you understand yourself as a ‘cognitive assemblage’ or as someone who makes use of technology – or, as academics can often feel, as a ‘victim’ of technology (the skype in my office isn’t working, we’re unable to project images etc.)?

View full article

Michael saved in Pocket: ‘Introduction: Thinking with Algorithms: Cognition and Computation in the Work of N. Katherine Hayles’ (Amoore 2019)


In our contemporary moment, when machine learning algorithms are reshaping many aspects of society, the work of N. Katherine Hayles stands as a powerful corpus for understanding what is at stake in a new regime of computation. A renowned literary theorist whose work bridges the humanities and sciences among her many works, Hayles has detailed ways to think about embodiment in an age of virtuality (How We Became Posthuman, 1999), how code as performative practice is located (My Mother Was a Computer, 2005), and the reciprocal relations among human bodies and technics (How We Think, 2012). This special issue follows the 2017 publication of her book Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious, in which Hayles traces the nonconscious cognition of biological life-forms and computational media. The articles in the special issue respond in different ways to Hayles’ oeuvre, mapping the specific contours of computational regimes and developing some of the ‘inflection points’ she advocates in the deep engagement with technical systems.

View full article

This article, from a Theory, Culture and Society special issue on Thinking with Algorithms: Cognition and Computation in the Work of N. Katherine Hayles relates to some of the articles and videos I have recently shared on ‘machines’ and cognition (particularly around this idea of ‘nonconscious cognition’). I’m also saving it here as it will no doubt be relevant to our later block on algorithmic cultures!

Michael saved in Pocket: ‘Albert Borgmann and N. Katherine Hayles interview/dialogue’


‘An interview/dialogue with Albert Borgmann and N. Katherine Hayles on humans and machines’

Question: This email message, like most of the email found in the inbox of your computer’s email program, was written and sent by a person, and not by some disembodied intelligent machine. However, these days, it’s possible to imagine that this message was machine-generated. In your books, Holding On to Reality and How We Became Posthuman you both discuss how we got to this point. Could you summarize briefly, as a place to begin?

View full article

Michael saved in Pocket: ‘How We Became Posthuman: Ten Years On – An Interview with N. Katherine Hayles’


This interview with N. Katherine Hayles, one of the foremost theorists of the posthuman, explores the concerns that led to her seminal book How We Became Posthuman (1999), the key arguments expounded in that book, and the changes in technology and culture in the ten years since its publication. The discussion ranges across the relationships between literature and science; the trans-disciplinary project of developing a methodology appropriate to their intersection; the history of cybernetics in its cultural and political context (particularly the impact of Norbert Wiener’s work); the changed role for psychoanalysis in the technoscientific age; and the altering forms of mediated ’embodiment’ in the posthuman context.

View full article

As I look at one of the readings this week from N. Katherine Hayles’ 1999 book, How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics, this interview ten years on helps to put it all in context.

Fascinating to see that her interest in both literature and science – which, for her, was ‘always intermingled’ – led to her looking at the posthuman (Hayles 2010: 318). Great inspiration for ‘intermingling’ our films and readings this week while, in Hayles’ (2010: 389) words, being ‘sceptical of everything’!